Denver charter school makes physical education a foundational element
If you were building a school from the ground up and hoping to attract students typically seen as at-risk, what elements would you include beyond the traditional academic components?
If you are Sally Sorte, the founder and now executive director of Academy 360 in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, you would bring a strong focus on health and wellness as well as a deep commitment to expanding those concepts to support the entire community, not just the students in your school.
Sorte has already seen that this focus, and particularly the school’s commitment to daily physical education for every student, has been a draw for neighborhood families.
“We really see physical education as being in service of learning. So we’ve prioritized it here. We’ve made it a daily priority and we know, it’s helping our kids,” Sorte said.
Academy 360 serves a population of students that many schools don’t. The student population is 85 percent free and reduced lunch and Sorte said about 40 percent of the pre-K through 5th grade students the school serves turn over year to year due to difficult issues like homelessness and extreme poverty making it difficult for caregivers to build more stability for their children.
“We find that physical education and physical activity is a place where our students can find success on a daily basis and that’s really important to keeping them and their families engaged with us,” she said. “Also, most of our families cannot afford expensive afterschool teams and programs, so our ability to get students physical activity and structured physical education during the school day is key.”
No school can offer this level of physical education without a dedicated – and often times particularly determined – teacher. Enter Marc Venisse. He heads the school’s physical education and wellness work, but the students just call him coach. Each and every day, he teaches seven sections of physical education.
“I really see my role as two important parts. First, I want to instill in these kids a life-long love of physical activity. I really want them to see the value in it for them, not just drill them on specific sports-related skills,” Venisse said. “And second, I want to improve their ability to do well in the classroom.”
This translates into physical education classes that provide a mixture of academic skills like rolling Venisse’s huge dice and summing the two numbers to discover how many jumping jacks you will do, to a structured warm up that helps students learn how to participate in physical activity safely. Venisse throws in incentives like Wellness Wednesday, where students participate in a physical challenge like a pull up or sit up competition. The winner gets to select their favorite activity for an upcoming PE class.
“I’m always thinking about how I can build the relationship with each student so they can see that what I am teaching them can become a lifestyle, not just something they do while they are in school,” Venisse said.
That’s really a good way to sum up what all the staffers at Academy 360 are focused on every day. Lunches there are healthy and sugary drinks are not allowed. Students who bring their lunch are asked to conform to the schools healthy foods efforts. And teachers walk the walk as well. You won’t find treats in the teachers’ break room and all sugar-sweetened beverages are banned for them as well.
“We all come every day asking ourselves, what should we be doing today to meet our students’ needs?” said Becky McLean, director of wellness and operations for the school. “How can we help them with healthy habits that will just become second nature?”
The 215 students in the school often struggle with health disparities associated with lower income communities, including limited access to grocery stores with fresh produce. So the school goes beyond their own lunch room to provide school families with access to fresh produce. With its partner, Denver Food Rescue, the school hosts a pop up grocery store once a week.
Among the other hats she wears, McLean is tasked with pulling together the some of the grant writing and other fundraising necessary to move the school’s health and wellness focus forward. She continues to look for opportunities to build out additional play space for the students. Right now, the school – located in a converted office building – uses outdoor facilities for physical education and recess. McLean is hopeful her proposal to add a soccer field to the converted parking lot will be accepted soon.
Wedged into her already full schedule, McLean serves on cooperative committees both within Denver Public Schools and across districts in the Denver metro area aimed at sharing best practices and resources to help make physical education and physical activity a given for all students.
“We are just using the research that is already there. Research that tells us that physical education and physical activity improve academic performance and helps our littles over the long run. We aren’t inventing something new here, we are implementing what we already know. We seek to show other schools that prioritizing physical activity helps serve the whole child – their academics grow as does their physical and emotional health,” McLean said.
No one had to sell Emily Stelling, the school’s 5th grade teacher, on the benefits. She believes she has seen them in her classroom. With access to quality physical education and her own efforts to add physical activity into typical classroom work – her students must race to the front of the classroom to solve a multiplication problem – she says she has seen data that proves the point. She is quick to note that in just one year, she saw her students move from 15 percent approaching or meeting standards to 56 percent approaching or meeting standards on the rigorous new state tests.
“I don’t need to prove it to my students. They know that exercise helps them focus and learn better,” Stelling said. “They just know it works.”
Stelling talked about her commitment to the school’s health and wellness focus from a conference room dressed in workout clothes. It was Wellness Wednesday, and teachers are expected to participate in their
classes’ wellness challenge.
“They need to know that we care about our bodies as teachers,” she said. “They need to see us modeling these healthy behaviors.”
She immediately recounts the story of one of her students. He struggles with obesity and when he came to the school, he refused to participate in physical education classes as well as recess. His classroom focus was limited. With the right mentoring, he’s now an active participant in all facets of his school life. Recently, he even challenged Stelling to a plank competition.
“He would never have thought of that just a year ago,” Stelling said. “Now he feels engaged enough to think up competitions on his own. It’s just been really rewarding to see that kind of transformation in another person.”
On this day at the school, Stelling’s 5th graders are engaged in an intense game of “Junk Cars” in Venisse’s PE class. The game is a variation on dodgeball, but it incorporates more continual movement and less opportunity for students to hide in the background or intentionally knock themselves out of participation quickly. Not that any of the students would try that anyway. The game drew cheers from the students when Venisse announced they would be playing it. Then it was off to the playground to hold their Wellness Wednesday pull up competition. Not every student could do a pull up. But every student tried.
The winner completed 10 total pull ups and everyone left with a smile on their face.