From Bad to Worse? NYC Phys. Ed.A Long-Time Problem Could Escalate in Face of Budget Woes

The results are in and we have all heard them: Americans are getting fatter. We eat too much and don't exercise enough. Children are no exception. According to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 13 percent of children ages 6-11 were overweight in 1999, up from 11 percent in the years between 1988-1994, and 7 percent in the late 1970s. What's more, despite the fact that kids seem unable to sit still, the CDC survey found that fewer than one in four children get 20 minutes of vigorous activity daily; a contributing factor to the levels of inactivity for many New York City public school students is a lack of adequate physical education classes. Researchers from Educational Frameworks, a Manhattan-based consulting organization, spent more than two years studying physical education programs in City public schools and found that, even though New York State mandates physical education for all students, "as many as 41 percent of elementary schools and 23 percent of high schools do not provide regular physical education classes for all their students." Titled Hit or Miss, the study found that while some schools do offer students innovative physical education classes and sports programs, the majority have out-of-date curricula and/or space, or staffing limitations which prohibit an adequate program for students. Now, as city schools face severe budget cuts, the situation may continue to get worse. "Part of the reason is money and part of the reason is a real split between those who understand the importance of this issue and those who don't," says Nancy Lederman, project director of the Hit or Miss study, which was released early last year. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) produces research and publications related to sports and fitness. NASPE has identified, in addition to improved physical fitness, the following benefits of a quality physical education program: - Self discipline - Improved judgment - Stress reduction - Strengthened peer relationships - Improved self-confidence and self-esteem - Experience setting goals But these benefits do not seems to be getting the attention they deserve ¡ª at least not on a consistent basis throughout the City's school system. The Hit or Miss study reads, in part: "State regulations require physical education from kindergarten through grade 12, daily in grades K to 3 and two to three times weekly in higher grades. In many schools, however, students have physical education classes only once a week, a number of schools provide physical education classes to only a few grades, and some have no physical education classes at all."

The decline in sports and physical education in the public schools is not new. The problem dates back to the economic crisis of the 1970s, when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. But even in the high-flying 1980s, the money and the attention never came back to these school programs. A 1999 series by The New York Times chronicled the decline of sports in the city's public high schools. The Times noted that a combination of pressure to improve academic performance and reduce overcrowding took resources away from physical education programs during the 1980s and 90s. This, along with parental and political apathy toward school sports, impacted programs severely. In the late '90s, there was a glimmer of hope for phys ed and sports programs in the schools. Lederman notes that in the 1999-2000 school year, under then Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, the Board of Education established the "Fit for Life" program to promote physical education, fitness and health education. A budget of $100 million over three years was earmarked for staffing, training and equipment. But, Lederman's study found the initiative "faltered sharply" after the first year, when reports that a substantial portion of "Fit for Life" funds were redirected for other needs in the school system. There is a huge disparity between what government and health officials tell us about the importance of fitness and physical activity and how that gets filtered down to our schools. NASPE conducts a "Shape of the Nation" report every few years. The latest report states: "Fifteen years after the U.S. Congress passed Resolution 97, encouraging state and local governments and local educational agencies to provide high-quality daily physical education programs for all children in kindergarten through grade 12¡­little progress has been made." In their report, NASPE states that there is no federal law that requires physical education to be provided to students in the American education system and there are no incentives for offering phys ed programs. NASPE calls on parents to become proactive and effective advocates for quality phys ed programs and physical activities and to set a good example by being active themselves. The Hit or Miss report provides a long list of recommendations for action by the city, the state and the private sector, but notes: "Reform requires a change in school culture and public attitude as well as the will to effect that change."


Some help is coming from the private sector. Many schools, especially the smaller alternative schools, lack the facilities for proper physical education classes. Basketball City, located next to Chelsea Piers, offers several programs that serve public school students. Basketball City president Bruce Radler says his company provides public school students with free use of their facilities for games and practices. In exchange for the free court time, the students and coaches give back community service. The community service projects can take the form of painting a local recreation center or giving out toys at Christmas time. Radler says Basketball City teams with non-profit organizations to find appropriate community projects for the athletes. "The schools don't have to use the space just for basketball. They can play volleyball, dodge ball or even hold lectures. It's just an open space," Radler says. Currently, more than 1,000 public school children between ages 6-16 play at Basketball City free of charge. But Basketball City is just one resource and despite efforts to get more children to benefit from their facility, Radler says transportation and time away from other school subjects becomes an issue, especially during the school day. All programs now take place in the after school hours and most students take public transportation to the facility.