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Another Voice: Buffalo schools can help students learn by providing physical education

By Renee Cadzow

Youth who are provided opportunities to exercise at school are absent less, have better moods and fewer behavioral problems, are more alert and motivated, learn better and perform better on academic tests. Common sense and countless studies demonstrate that exercise makes your brain work better.

A typical day in the Buffalo Public Schools, however, includes little to no opportunity for students, even as young as 4, to be physically active. Three years ago, parents, students, staff and community members helped create a comprehensive Wellness Policy that prioritized physical activity and health. While the district has made some gains in reinstituting recess in elementary schools, it remains out of compliance with state physical education regulations.

Some schools provide only 30 minutes of PE every six days to K-3 students, when they are required to provide 120 minutes on a six-day cycle. PE minutes for fourth- to sixth-graders are slightly better, but still well under the amount required.

In an attempt to increase PE minutes for K-3 students, recess has been reduced or eliminated to accommodate physical education videos, which provide 10-minute bursts of activity in the classroom. While these may be a great addition to standard classroom instruction to maintain healthy brain activity, they are a poor substitute for PE and are actually counterproductive when recess time is compromised.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development developed a “whole child, whole school, whole community” approach to health and learning. This model promotes an ecological and research-based approach to learning, which includes physical education and activity.

Parents have been advocating for a greater focus on student health, and even filed a legal appeal against the district asking it to comply with state PE regulations, which would require hiring more than 30 new PE teachers. Data from the district’s own Youth Risk Behavior Survey reflects a student population that is extremely sedentary, with more than half of students overweight. The research tells us this makes sense; parents and students want it. Why are we not doing more to address this critical, straightforward health and learning issue?

I believe Buffalo has the ability to join the growing collection of schools that have transformed their approach to education in response to overwhelming evidence. District leaders need to connect the dots as they make budget and operational decisions for the next school year. I urge the Board of Education to support a “whole child” approach, and approve a plan to implement daily PE and recess for all ages.

Renee Cadzow, Ph.D., is co-director of the Center for Research on Physical Activity, Sport & Health at D’Youville College.