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City schools ramp up physical education

The Buffalo School District has been out of compliance with state-mandated physical education requirements for years, contributing to a young student population often described as restless, inattentive and increasingly fat.

According to the Erie County Health Department, between 30 percent and 45 percent of students in Buffalo Public Schools are considered overweight or obese.

Despite the adoption of a health and wellness policy in 2012, the district has been slow to meet policy goals, resulting in repeated parent complaints to the state.

But last week, after extensive School Board discussion, the district took a major step forward by agreeing to hire 30 additional physical education teachers for this coming school year.

That means that starting next year, if all goes as planned, many children in kindergarten through third grades can finally look forward to receiving physical education classes more than once every six school days.

“We’re excited that it’s moving a positive direction,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, head of the District Parent Coordinating Council’s Health Committee. “It’s a lot of different stakeholders working together, which is a positive sign because it’s very rare. It just shows we can accomplish things in the district when people commit to it.”

School Board member Jason McCarthy added, “Studies have shown that kids that are more active are better at tests, better at keeping their attention in class.”

The state requires students in kindergarten through sixth grades to receive 120 minutes of physical education every week. But because of the cost and the limited length of the school day in Buffalo, which is shorter than in many other school districts across the state, children in grades kindergarten through third have generally received only one 30 to 45 minute gym classes every six school days.

Moreover, until two years ago, many of these children weren’t even getting recess.

“We found out there were kids in pre-K and kindergarten that were getting less than half an hour every six days,” said McCarthy, a proponent of the district’s health and wellness policy. “I know my kids; the minute they get out of school, they are bonkers.”

In grades four to six, students are generally receiving two 40 to 45 minute classes per six-day cycle, still short of the state-required 120-minute/three-classes-per-week requirements.

Since 2012, the district has taken modest steps to improve the situation. Two years ago, the district brought back recess to all elementary schools. The district also had teachers show Project ACES, a video exercise program that added to – or simply replaced – recess time. The district also hired about three additional physical education teachers last year, though ultimately the district saw a net loss of PE teachers because some principals opted to get rid of those teachers in favor of more academic staff.

But the parent and community campaign to bring the district into full phys ed compliance ramped up last year, with the District Parent Coordinating Council, the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization, the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the Inter-High Student Council all lobbying for increased physical education time in schools, along with other groups.

Ultimately, the School Board approved a budget for 2015-16 that would bring the district into full compliance with physical education requirements by hiring 48 additional physical education teachers. But the board majority attached a caveat that the Buffalo Teachers Federation union agree to lengthen the school day so that more physical education classes could be added to school schedules.

When the BTF refused to sign a memo to that effect, board majority member Larry Quinn originally said the district would then hire no additional PE teachers. Board majority members ultimately decided, however, that the district should be encouraged to hire as many physical education teachers as schools could reasonably accommodate this fall.

After extensive discussion at last week’s special meeting of the School Board, the board and administration agreed that 30 additional teachers could be accommodated at schools this fall. Acting Chief Financial Officer Geoffrey Pritchard was asked to find money in the district’s budget and contingency accounts to pay for the additional teachers.

Since the proposed district budget already included money to hire 11 additional teachers as part of a five-year phase-in plan for physical education compliance, the district must now allocate an additional $1.6 million for 19 more.

That’s money well spent, said Walker, who will gather with others Monday afternoon on the steps of City Hall to urge qualified PE teachers to apply for the open positions.

“It shouldn’t be negotiable when it comes to following the law,” she said. “We need to start taking it more seriously, and we’re going to keep pushing until we get into full compliance.”