By Karen McNeil-Miller, The Denver Post
Denver Public Schools is considering no longer mandating physical education as a requirement for high school graduation. (Thinkstock)
In Colorado, where childhood obesity, cardiovascular risk factors, type 2 diabetes, asthma and joint problems are all on the rise, Denver Public Schools — our state's largest school district — is considering eliminating the requirement that all graduating high school students take the equivalent of one year of physical education.
If that seems like a stark contradiction to you, let me assure you, it is.
It is clear we are failing to adequately teach and instill the value of health and wellness in students. One of the most important ways that students learn these skills is through high-quality physical education.
Additionally, research shows that children who are more active during the school day show greater concentration and better classroom behavior, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests — all leading to better performance at school.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children get at least an hour of physical activity each day, yet a survey of Colorado school-aged children found that less than half are receiving the recommended amount.
Three recent independent polls have confirmed that an overwhelming majority of Colorado residents support increasing physical education in schools.
On Thursday the DPS Board of Education will consider new graduation standards, including a "strong recommendation" — instead of a requirement — that students take physical education.
Why would DPS want to eliminate a requirement that does for students something that no other requirement can — expose them to the tools they need to lead a healthy life?
Supporters of the proposed new policy may argue that high academic standards and increased time and budget constraints require them to make this change. The district already allows students with unworkable academic schedules, as well as those students involved in athletics, to apply for a waiver from the requirement. If innovative, large districts around the country have found ways to accommodate both the academic and health needs of all students, DPS can do the same.
Rather than creating the flexibility the district says it needs, we believe this change will ultimately create a system that devalues physical education, health and wellness.
If no physical education is required in high school, as proposed — and no physical education is required in middle school, as is already the case in the district — then we can anticipate a future where students receive no instruction in physical education past the fourth or fifth grade. There will be a dramatic drop in students choosing physical education as an elective. And there will be an increase in the number of schools — especially those that are struggling — no longer opting to offer it. We need only to look at some large school districts surrounding DPS that have eliminated the requirement to know this.
No one should expect public schools to do it all. But we should expect them to construct educational content that emphasizes what students need to become successful and healthy adults.
Karen McNeil-Miller is president and CEO of the Colorado Health Foundation. This commentary was also signed by Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of Padres and Jovenes Unidos, and Shepard Nevel, president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado. All three organizations are part of the PE for All Colorado Coalition, a coalition of groups dedicated to improving physical education for all Colorado students.