Fit bodies, fit minds

Kenneth Dyar

The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that quality physical education, which includes a focus on physical fitness, enhances student academic achievement. California, Texas, New York and other states have run similar studies linking student physical fitness with improved performance on standardized tests.

There’s absolutely zero evidence that increasing time in the school day for physical education has a negative impact on student achievement. We did not find one single study to support replacing P.E. time with more seat time.

In Delano, the change for us came after the first “Fitnessgram” test results were revealed in 1999. That year only 7 percent of our 7th graders could pass that test. So to flip that, 93 percent failed. So I threw out the traditional P.E. curriculum and I rewrote it to have a fitness focus and to address the individual needs of each child.

We had no gym at the time, no real equipment, our kids wore their street clothes to PE. But just by changing our focus we went from 7 percent passing the Fitnessgram in 99 to 44.4 percent in 2002, just four years later.

We made sure our kids spend at least 50 percent of their P.E. class time in moderate to vigorous physical activity. They get P.E five days a week. And they get way more than the minimum number of minutes required in the California education code. In addition to student fitness improving, we also saw a decrease in discipline referrals on campus, and in the last four years the API at my middle school has increased 81 points, even though we have increasingly added more physical activity time during the day, thereby reducing academic seat time.

Our school board and superintendent have been strong advocates for our wellness program and we now have a $4 million gym with a state- of-the-art fitness lab, heart rate monitors and pedometers for every child in our P.E. classes, and the PE program I wrote for our middle school has been extended to every school in our district.

We have also extended this philosophy in new areas. We have brought movement into the classroom to provide brain breaks and reinforce core conduct through physical activity. We developed an after school recreational sports program that is offered free of charge to our kids. And we partnered with various entities in our community to increase physical activity opportunities for everyone.

Our program has been honored by the National Middle School Association, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and the California Department of Education when I was named California Teacher of the Year in 2006.

In 2008 we were named middle school of the year by the governor’s Council on Fitness and Sport, and in 2009 the governor’s Council named us district of the year for the Central Valley.

Delano is a small agricultural community with high levels of poverty, high levels of unemployment and few financial resources. The stereotype would say we couldn’t do what we’ve done in our town. But we have done it. And if it can happen in Delano, it can happen anywhere.

Kenneth Dyar is Coordinator of Physical Education, Wellness, and Athletic Competition for the Delano Union School District. This story was adapted from his presentation Feb. 24 to the governor’s obesity and wellness summit in Los Angeles.

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