School district in the heart of the mountains puts a focus on physical education.
Tiny Archuleta School District puts emphasis on healthy living for life
In the Archuleta School District in Pagosa Springs, Captain America is alive and well. And so is a passion for quality physical education and encouraging an active, healthy lifestyle.
On just about any given morning, you can find Coach Lindsey Kurt-Mason dressed as Captain America and perched on his specially-built podium high atop Pagosa Springs Elementary School. As the buses and cars roll in to deliver students to school, he encourages exercise. Even the teachers come outside to join in in the minutes before school starts as Kurt-Mason calls out encouragement from his microphone.
“It’s amazing really, to see a whole playground full of students and teachers and sometimes even some parents out there exercising,” says Elementary Principal Justin Cowan. “One thing I’m certain of is that kids enter our building ready to focus and learn after those 20 minutes with Coach Mason.”
This scene really captures the spirit of the Archuleta School District’s commitment to educating students on an active healthy lifestyle: Everyone is expected to go above and beyond to make it a part of educating the whole child. And that emphasis starts at the top.
Superintendent Linda Reed saw it when she arrived in the district as assistant superintendent in 2009. Already, the district’s three schools and roughly 1,300 students were receiving a minimum of 40 minutes of daily PE of fiscal fitness in elementary and middle school and required two years of PE for high school graduation. The school board saw these kinds of efforts as a means of helping students leave the district well rounded and well equipped for a successful future.
“The philosophy that health and wellness and physical education are important is going to be an underpinning of everything we do,” Reed says. “Our board is clear on that. Our community supports it, and honestly, we see its benefits across our classrooms.”
The road to this kind of commitment hasn’t been easy for the district. With the commitment has come grant writing to make up the gap in funding for everything from equipment to teacher training. It has come with scheduling issues. And it has come with an expectation that everyone will be going above and beyond when it comes to including physical activity and health and wellness opportunities in everything they do.
Alongside the emphasis the district is placing on formal physical education, it is also supporting physical activity and healthy eating. A wealth of after school activities from a mountain bike club just in formation to a ski club that has existed for years are available to students. And scratch cooking in the cafeteria is well underway. To help expand these efforts to families, monthly potlucks are held for the whole school community. Recently, local hunters donated the elk for chili. And students who come from lower income families have access to backpacks full of healthy food for the weekend from the local Rotary Club.
“This effort is definitely a community-wide effort,” said Cowan. “We work hard here, every teacher, and every staffer. But we couldn’t do it without the support of our parents and our wider community. It’s a good feeling to know that we are all in this together to help all our student reach their goals.”
Connie O’Donnell, the Pagosa Springs High School Physical Education and Health teacher, attributes a great deal of her success to the administrative support she receives for everything from training to just trying new ideas that will help her students succeed. But most importantly, she values the emphasis the leadership of her district places on physical education as an important part of developing well rounded students and future adults.
“I think they really understand health and wellness and the important impact that has on all of us for our whole lives,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve heard other districts they only have PE once a week and I think Oh, my gosh, how do the students ever focus in the classroom setting? And how do they learn about the important health connections they’ll need for their whole lives?”
O’Donnell’s classes are exercises in fitness and exercise, certainly, but they also include team building and problem solving as well as making the connections between what students know about how their bodies function and how they apply that to healthy living choices she hopes they will make.
“I hope that they remember things they are learning how much they should be moving each day and why,” she said. “I hope they think about labels on food and the kinds of foods they are putting in their bodies. I want them to want to be healthy. I guess there’s really a piece of me that hopes they don’t have to think about all of these things and that they just become habit.”
Talk to any member of the district leadership or staff and they are quick to tell you they could not have made these important transformations happen alone. Financial constraints on the district would have made it impossible to provide the training and support for teachers as well as provide the staffing – both during and after school – necessarily to provide the host of opportunities they district does. In many cases, equipment costs were also beyond the district’s means.
That’s where the San Juan BOCES came in. These Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) exist across Colorado and support multiple school districts who want to pool resources and opportunities. The San Juan BOCES includes nine small school districts including the Archuleta School District. At the request of these districts, the San Juan BOCES applied for grants and is providing staff support and training support to help all districts improve their physical education offerings. The district supplements this support through additional grant writing it does on its own.
The Archuleta School District has taken full advantage of that support, according to Cindy Erickson, project manager for the BOCES health and wellness program. In her role, she does everything from scheduling teacher trainings for the 45 PE teachers across the districts to providing equipment and organizational support for individual PE teachers and schools.
“If you are trying to get that low hanging fruit in terms of helping districts really improve their PE and get more quality PE time for students, then collaboration is the key,” Erickson says. “The equipment was nice to have but the trainings were a need to have for these teachers who can otherwise be pretty isolated because they often times are the only PE teacher at their school.”
Erickson has watched as the Archuleta School District has shifted its focus and improved outcomes across the board. Something she has seen replicated across the years she has been involved with physical education in Colorado.
“It’s huge. You see fewer behavior referrals. The cognitive test scores go up,” she says. “Some of it might be empirical data, but it is there. If you interview the classroom teachers, I bet they will say that things have changed in their schools.”
Superintendent Reed seems to agree. The district dedicates one teacher and one full time aide who is PE certified in the elementary school, two and a half teachers in the middle school and two and a half teachers in the high school to meet its physical education and physical activity goals. It actively seeks training for credentials for other teachers as well.
“We see the gains and we understand the real value. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be putting in the time and effort it takes to cobble together resources for this. But when we think about moving our district forward and improving outcomes for every one of our students every day, this is a clear path,” Reed says. “We’re invested. We’re staying the course and we’re demonstrating results.”