St. Vrain School District moves the needle with quality physical education
Front Range elementary school sees benefits from active students
At Mead Elementary School, it all started about four years ago with a shared reading project for all staff and a belief that the schools situation could improve with more focus on movement. At that moment, it was a leap of faith. The school was on improvement status.
Today, test scores have risen steadily. Discipline referrals are down. And a sense of community is building around what can be accomplished through quality physical education, increased physical activity and student and family understanding that healthy living is a school priority.
“Four years ago, Mead elementary was on improvement status and now we are a performance school. That’s the reality we’ve seen,” said Betsy Ball, school principal. “The main things we did were that we really became intentional about what we are doing with instructional minutes so that we could also be intentional with constructive movement breaks and increasing physical education.”
Each elementary student gets physical education classes every third day. Those classes are taught by Robin Sagel, a highly experienced and dedicated physical education teacher who has 20 years of experience teaching physical education, 13 at Mead Elementary. The gym where he teaches incorporates all aspect of learning including reading and problem solving activities that require movement. The activities he incorporates, intentionally make it impossible for students to hang back and not participate.
“This is about building a lifetime of understanding around health and wellness,” Sagel said. “It’s about building these skills and knowledge in the kids while also supporting their academic success.”
Sagel also runs a 100 mile club from 8:20 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. for any student who wants to participate. More than 100 kids signed up to come in early and exercise before heading to class and Sagel hopes to increase that number as well as the number of parents that participate with their children or volunteer to help him staff it each morning. He credits the success he has had in the classroom with administrative support he finds crucial.
“I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my principal, who understands the importance of this and helps elevate it throughout our school,” he said. “And the district, which helps to provide the resources we couldn’t get on our own.”
Sagel has also been able to bring more variety to his classroom activities and learning because the St. Vrain School District receives some physical education and physical activity grants that allows the district to fill in gaps in funding in creative ways. For example, the district has a rotating library of higher cost more interactive PE equipment that would be too expensive for any one school to own. But by pooling the district grant money, teachers from across the district can plan their lessons around the equipment which is delivered to their school for two to three week blocks and then stored at a central district facility.
“It is undeniable that there is just huge value in physical education. I think it is the cornerstone of comprehensive physical activity and a healthy life,” said Paige Jennings, PE coordinator for the school district. “There is a whole emotional and social piece. It is essential if our kids are going to understand why they should be physically active for a lifetime and how to be active for a lifetime.”
Jennings is responsible for administering the private grants that the district has received to improve physical education and physical activity. It wouldn’t have been possible to accomplish all that the district has in terms of resources and equipment within the existing per-pupil funding, so the district made the additional effort to gather other financial support.
“The brain research is clear. You really can’t argue with the link between physical activity and learning readiness, academic achievement, behavior and overall health and wellness,” she said.
The St. Vrain School District requires two PE credits for high school graduation, one of the highest requirements in the state. While students who participate in high school athletics or have academic course loads that won’t accommodate the requirement can apply for a waiver, the majority of students fulfill the requirement.
At Mead Elementary School, the practical application of the district emphasis has brought its own rewards. Music, art and physical education teachers find ways to blend their efforts so that these classes, typically called “specials” and often provided less frequently than their core academic classes, find their way into the overall educational effort on a more regular basis.
The entire school of 500 participates in coordinated movement breaks twice a day, 15 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes each afternoon. On a rotating schedule, one grade level will go to Sagel’s gym. Another will head outside for structured game or activity. Some will stay in the classrooms and get out of their seats for movement. These 15 minute breaks are credited, in part, with helping the school improve academics as well as helping to deal with behavioral challenges.
Shortly into the effort, Ball noticed that behavioral referrals spiked around 1:50 p.m. in the afternoon. The scheduled, school wide movement break was at 1 p.m. So with a small shift in the time of the break to 1:50 p.m., the behavioral referrals dropped dramatically.
“We are a staff and school committed to this. We’ve seen the real results,” said Ball. “This isn’t just some kind of new idea we are trying out. This is the application of what we know works in a real way to improve the education of all of our kids. This is a movement.”