Kids’ Fitness Picks Up Steam in California

By Donal Brown
Friday May 04, 2007

The battle to improve physical education in California schools is intensifying following the release in late January of two new reports commissioned by The California Endowment, a private health foundation. 

With childhood obesity and diabetes poised to exact a huge financial and human toll in California, the reports reopen the question of how we can pay for improved education and whether full funding is necessary to enjoy quality PE programs. 

Citing rising rates of obesity and diabetes in children, the reports found that public schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, are not providing their students with adequate physical education. 

Among the key findings are: 

• Large class sizes meant less activity. 

• On average only four minutes of every half hour is devoted to vigorous activity. 

• Especially in poorer communities, PE teachers and equipment are sub par. 

The 2006 California physical fitness test of grades five, seven and nine in six areas of fitness—aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength and endurance, trunk extensor strength and flexibility, upper body strength, and endurance and flexibility—showed that all demographic subgroups in California’s schools could use improvement. 

The percent of students achieving a passing health and fitness zone was highest for Asians and whites at 41.3 percent and 38.2 percent respectively. Filipinos scored at 35.7 percent, Pacific Islanders 27.6 percent, American Indians 26 percent, African-Americans 23.5 percent, and Latinos 22.9 percent. 

But as usual poor students of all ethnicities and races are getting the worst of it. Dr. Antronette Yancey of UCLA, who helped research and write one of the California Endowment reports, “Failing Fitness,” said the disparity between schools in low-income and high-income communities is disturbing. The best PE programs in low-income schools were comparable to the worst in high-income schools, she said. 

There are many excuses for not delivering PE to students. Yancey acknowledged that teachers in low-resource schools especially feel the pressures of standardized testing. It is common for schools to use PE time for test review and to administer the tests. 

But James Sallis of San Diego State University, who was part of a team that prepared the second study, “Physical Education Matters,” said there is evidence that PE can improve academic study. Sallis co-authored a research report that showed that devoting more school time to PE does not have a detrimental effect on academic achievement. 

Released in 1998, the report “Effects of Health-related Physical Education on Academic Achievement,” was conducted in K-5 schools in an affluent suburb in Southern California. Students were given rigorous fitness activities and taught to maintain physical activity on their own. Control schools delivered their usual PE program to students. 

Although the teachers in the experiment spent fewer hours teaching academic subjects, student performance was not harmed, and the additional PE appears to have positive effects on achievement. 

There are many avenues for improving PE programs, according to Sallis. In researching schools throughout the state, they found many model PE programs in low-resource schools. In some cases, local health departments pay for the programs. 

Although the San Rafael City School District is not a low-resource district, it still struggles to provide counselors and employs no full-time librarians. It is a stretch to hire a teacher with a PE credential. 

In one San Rafael school with 95 percent Latinos, Principal Kathryn Gibney was able to tap the local YMCA for a part-time credentialed PE teacher, Lenda Butcher. This has brought about a cultural shift at the school, virtually eliminating behavioral problems during recesses. 

“The thing that Lenda did that was so phenomenal was set up activities at recess for every student. She taught them the rules of each game and even the history of the game so the recesses became structured. Everyone had something to do,’’ said Gibney. The students got along a lot better with each other, and were able to get more exercise. 

Besides tapping local YMCAs or health departments, Sallis said there are other ways to get money including applying for federal grants. The district, though, must be able to pay for grant writing. In addition, each school has money for in-service training that could be used to train teachers in PE. 

To bring PE and fitness to optimal levels state-wide, Yancey says, there needs to be a steady, reliable source of funding. Some even favor putting a tax on sedentary activities so that the television and movie industries would foot some of the bill. 

With the support of the California Endowment, this work is continuing to improve PE around the state. Sallis says teams are visiting the low-income schools that have good programs to see how those programs can serve as models. 


Donal Brown taught for 35 years in California’s public schools.