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Schools pump up PE

When the talk turns to physical education, several things probably come to mind: running, jumping jacks, team sports, sweat.

But walking to and from lunch?

No way, say state legislators and health experts, who were concerned that some schools were using the time it took to walk across campus to meet a state law that said elementary school kids need to have 150 minutes of physical education a week.

The law, which went into effect last year, did not specify how schools should fit those 2 1/2 hours into days already crammed with reading, math and writing. So some took a creative approach, cobbling together minutes of stretching, recess and health talk in a given day.

"There were some really great things that went on,'' said Don Knitt, president of the Florida Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Dance and Sport. "And there were some interesting things that were not the intent of the bill.''

A new bill passed this year gives school districts less creative license to meet the requirement. It says that on any day during which kids have physical education, they must have at least 30 minutes in a row.

"The idea is to get kids up and active and moving,'' said Knitt, who is also the physical education curriculum coordinator for the Polk County school district.

The law is intended to try to combat the childhood obesity epidemic but also to help students pay more attention in school, said state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who sponsored the bill.

"When you have good health, you can learn more,'' he said, adding that exercise can help reduce bad behavior by giving kids a positive way to release energy.

Now many schools are struggling to meet the tougher requirements.

In Broward, most elementary schools have physical education at least once a week; all have recess on non-P.E. days.

At Lakeside Elementary in Pembroke Pines, students have 40 minutes of P.E. twice every seven school days. A recent class started as usual: Kids doing jumping jacks, twists, arm circles, a run and a walk around the track and then a mad dash to the water fountain.

"They'll never walk,'' said P.E. teacher Dennis Valerioti. "It's another way of getting their exercise.''

Kids that day were sitting on low scooters and working leg muscles by pushing themselves backward and forward around a cone.

"That was fast!'' said first-grader Cameron Bolash, 6, after he took his turn.

Although Lakeside has longer P.E. classes than most schools, Principal Marion Ann Fee said it is still a challenge to work in all the required time.

"You just have to adjust,'' she said. "They do need that physical release.''

On days kids don't have PE, teachers have to make sure they're meeting the law's requirements -- and that calls for some creativity.

Elly Zanin, the Broward school district's physical education curriculum specialist, said schools could potentially package health and nutrition education with physical activity to meet the 30-minute mandate. State officials said that would meet the law as long as kids were actively engaged the whole time.

The district has given schools equipment and games, and has put lesson plans on the district website so classroom teachers can better integrate physical activity into other subjects.

"The kids are loving it when they get to do their math by standing up, going around the room and measuring the dimensions of the desks and picture frames,'' Zanin said.

Kim Rich, health teacher at Davie Elementary, said the requirement is good news for kids. And more PE would be even better.

"I'd like to see it every day, 30 minutes a day, an hour a day,'' she said. "That's what we need.''

The Miami-Dade school district is ahead of the game when it comes to the law. The district has required regular physical education for elementary school kids for years, and kids have recess on top of that. Schools have 150 minutes of PE a week, mostly in 30-minute daily classes.

Jayne Greenberg, Miami-Dade's director of physical education, said the daily physical education doubles as classroom teachers' planning time -- which means minutes are well spent for both teachers and students.

"Students are feeling the stress of everyday life as well,'' she said. "The kids need an outlet. In general, kids just need to play and they need to be physically active.''

At North Beach Elementary in Miami Beach, kids have an hour of P.E. two days a week and a half-hour on a third day. During one recent hourlong class, fifth-graders spent half of the time working on volleyball skills like serving and the rest of the class doing standard fitness activities like jumping rope and sit-ups.

"It's really fun, we get a lot of exercise,'' said Millie Rogers, 10.

"Since we're sitting in the classroom all day, it helps get our energy out,'' said Alexandra Leary, 10.

P.E. teacher Michele Rivera called phys ed "as important as any subject taught in schools.''

"The kids are not only getting an education that moves their bodies, they're learning lifetime healthy habits,'' she said.

Recent P.E. laws have targeted elementary grades and, lately, middle school. High school students must have one physical education credit to graduate.

Starting next school year, middle school students must have one class period per day of physical education for one semester during each year of middle school. The classes do not have to be taught by a P.E. teacher. Parents could have the requirement waived if a student needs to take remedial classes, wants to take a different elective or already takes part in enough physical activities outside school.

In Miami-Dade, Greenberg said many middle school kids already take P.E. even though it isn't required. She said the law would not be a problem.

"We're ready in middle school,'' she said.

Zanin, from Broward, said middle schools will start focusing at the beginning of next semester on how to fit in the P.E. requirements.

"For that I would just say, 'Stay tuned,'‚'' she said.