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Fitting In Exercise, Between Math and English


Five years ago, Richard Reiss, the physical education teacher at PS 119 in Far Rockaway, Queens, went to the principal with a problem: not even the most athletic among his students, most of whom are poor and black or Latino, had enough endurance to run a mile.


The once-a-week physical education classes the school offered, far from what was needed to fulfill the minimum requirement set by the state, were not cutting it. Mr. Reiss suggested starting a walking club, then found out about something better: a free program led by New York Road Runners that is now operating in 450 schools across New York City and provides prizes based on miles logged.

P.S. 197ís 550 students, from prekindergarten through fifth grade, still have regular physical education classes only once a week, but 40 fourth- and fifth-grade pupils show up daily for the optional program at 7 a.m., 80 minutes before the first bell.

"When youíre given a limited budget, you have to ask yourself, ĎWhatís the priority?í " said Christina Villavicencio, who took over as principal at P.S. 197 last month. "Should I hire another science teacher or a gym teacher?"

Most states mandate physical education from kindergarten through 12th grade, with New York and five others ó Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont ó setting minimum amounts of instructional time, according to a report by the National Association of Physical Education released last year.

New York requires 120 minutes a week through sixth grade, and at least 90 minutes a week for seventh and eighth grades, but a recent audit of 31 elementary schools  by the city comptroller, John C. Liu, found that none of them were in compliance.

Principals and other education officials say the combination of budget cuts and testing pressures have relegated physical education to the dispensable category, despite city and federal efforts to combat obesity and improve health by promoting nutritious foods and frequent exercise.

But some teachers and principals have gotten creative to prioritize movement during the school day, stretching money, space and time to fit in exercise wherever they can.

At PS 126 on the Lower East Side, the problem was not that students were out of shape, but that it was difficult to find a place for them to exercise in a building filled to capacity. The physical education teacher, John DeMatteo, scoured the Internet and applied for a grant that gave the school $50,000 to turn a storage closet into an exercise room.

"When you have no money, you have to go out and do the legwork," Mr. DeMatteo said.

The school has a rock-climbing wall in the room that serves as a gym, auditorium and faculty meeting area, allowing Mr. DeMatteo to have two classes exercising at once: one on the gym floor and another on the wall. There is an after-school fitness club in which up to 30 students at a time lift weights or race one another on exercise bicycles hooked to video-game machines.

At PS 102 in East Harlem, classes break for a few minutes several times a day so students can stretch, squat or do jumping jacks at their desks. The movements are related to the curriculum: during a lesson on fractions, for example, the children stand when they are read the numerator, then bend their knees when they are read the denominator.

Using color-coded flashcards showing students in different poses ó yellow for stretching exercises, blue for heart-rate boosters ó teachers can easily insert the routines into their schedules: three minutes of yoga before a test, five minutes between English and science.

"Exercise doesnít have to be an extra," said Arlen Zamula, fitness coordinator at Healthy Schools Healthy Families, which runs the program at P.S. 102 and seven other schools. "Itís actually an educational tool."

Or it can help encourage children to keep their attendance up. At P.S. 25 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the parent coordinator, Síken Evans, said attendance usually plummeted before vacations. So last February, on the day before break, he sprinkled rope-jumping, hula-hooping and relay-racing sessions into the schedule.

"We got 90 percent of the kids to show up, which was big for us," said Mr. Evans, whose school offers gym classes every day of the week to its 330 students, from prekindergarten through fifth grade.

At P.S. 197, the Far Rockaway school with the early morning running club, Mr. Reiss split fourth- and fifth-grade students into groups one recent day for a relay race that would take them three times around the gym each.

"Get ready, get set," Mr. Reiss said before blowing the whistle and sending the children into a frenzy.

"Come on," they screamed, clapping their hands and hopping as if the floor beneath them were on fire. "Faster, faster, faster."

From the sidelines, Nylique Knight, 11, yelled at Sylvester Rojas, his teammate, "Ruuuun!"

Sylvester, also 11, passed one, two, three runners before reaching first place.

Shalonda Sistrunk, 9, came right behind him, the beads on the tips of her braids clicking as she handed the yellow baton to the next runner.

Last year, P.S. 197 won nearly 250 books, or a book for each mile its students ran collectively. On Sunday, the children are scheduled to compete at an all-day jamboree in Manhattan, a place some of them have never visited.

"This is about getting the kids in shape, building their self-esteem," Mr. Reiss said. "But first and foremost, itís about giving them a chance to experience something new."




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