Students in the Pembroke and Alexander school districts exercise less on weekends than during the school week. A lot less.
The 1,800 students spread across five schools tend to exercise almost 44 percent less on Saturdays and Sundays than during the week, said Mai Nguyen (pronounced My Win), the Carol M. White PEP Grant director for the two Genesee County districts.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 60 minutes of daily physical activity. The districts are monitoring students with Polar Active watches as part of a federal $1.8 million PEP Grant to bolster fitness and healthy nutrition habits among their young charges.
In the most recent of four data collection periods that started in January, Nguyen discovered that students in grades 5 to 12 averaged 66 minutes of weekday activity, versus 37 minutes on weekends.
"Still, it's exciting to see that our October numbers are significantly higher than earlier in the year, and a lot of students are reaching their goals," said Nguyen, of Kenmore, who was a physical education teacher in several Erie County schools before taking her current job a year ago.
The two school districts recently started the second fiscal year in the three-year PEP grant funding stream. The prestigious grant is given only to 16 school districts across the country each year. The Depew and Buffalo Public school districts have received similar grants during the last two years.
All three districts have used the money to beef up fitness facilities in – and around – their schools and bolster health, wellness and nutrition education.
In the first year of funding, which ended Sept. 30, the Pembroke district converted classrooms in the junior-senior high school and intermediate school (grades 3-6) into functional fitness and wellness rooms.
"At the high school, our focus was lifelong fitness," Nguyen said. That included a space where students can use TRX bands and medicine balls, kettle bells and Bulgarian bags, and other equipment that will continue to be familiar to them when they exercise as adults.
"At the Intermediate School, we converted one of the classrooms into a wellness center," she said. "We included a traverse rock wall alongside one wall. We purchased similar functional equipment but more age-appropriate. ... We also appealed to the interactive gaming kids like nowadays and purchased some Xbox Connects. They play 'Just Dance,' and 'Connect Sports' games."
More than $100,000 was spent at Alexander Jr.-Sr. High – which houses grades 6-12 – to enhance the high school weight room with more weight racks, treadmills, Stairmasters and ellipticals. The grant also paid for a walkway around an outdoor classroom at Alexander Elementary School.
"We were also able to create raised beds and have a nice little herb and vegetable garden for the students, who maintained that over the summer in their summer rec program," Nguyen said.
Nguyen holds a bachelor's degree in physical and health education from Canisius, as well as master's degrees in multidisciplinary studies from SUNY Buffalo State and educational leadership from Canisius. Here's what else she had to say about the grant, and wellness efforts, in the two districts.
Q. What's the plan for the new PEP fiscal year?
At Pembroke Jr.-Sr. High, we're going to update some of the equipment in the weight room, purchasing new cardio equipment and replacing some of the older equipment. At Pembroke Intermediate School, we're converting another classroom into a more cardio-based room next door to the wellness room, which is more of an open-floor concept. We're ordering cycling bikes, ellipticals, treadmills.
In Alexander, we're adding more to the outdoor classroom. We're going to add fitness stations around the new path, similar to Como Park in Lancaster. We're also going to update a playroom with more fitness-based playground equipment.
Q. Have students told you why the weekend drop-off in exercise activity?
We haven't talked with them about that yet. ... What's been nice this time around is that students in third grade to 12th grade will get their own data report and the physical education teachers will be able to have conversations with them about why they think they reached their goals on certain days and didn't on others. Hopefully we'll find some answers.
Q. What do you suspect?
With our high school students, a lot of our sports take place Monday through Friday, then they have weekends off. With younger students, if you have karate classes or soccer practice, that's usually on a weeknight. I don't think there are as many opportunities on the weekends for students to be physically active.
Q. So this underlines the importance of scheduling in fitness?
Yes. What really made this alarming last year was in March the students were wearing their watches and we had that freaky windstorm, then a snowstorm. We saw a similar drop as we see on the weekends when students had snow days.
Q. What steps might you take once you have the chance to really examine the data?
I've been talking it over with some of my co-workers. From the PEP grant side of things, we do have money to provide opportunities for family fitness nights. Because students are reaching their minutes Monday to Friday, maybe we look to offer some things on weekends.
Q. Have you thought about anything parents might do to help keep their kids more active on weekends?
We are lucky we have a partnership with the Genesee County Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. They run programs in both districts called "Get Fit." It's a family-based program where families come in and participate in a nutrition program for 45 minutes, then spend another 45 minutes in physical activity.
Q. Any recommendations to districts that don't have a PEP grant to fall back on when it comes to increasing health and fitness participation?
What's been very helpful is being excited and having that passion to promote being physically active, promote eating healthy, and promote the value of taking care of your body. When I was a phys ed teacher, I never had the luxury of a PEP grant but setting an example for your students, trying new things and sharing them with students matters.
A lot of times we're just not aware of what our communities have for us. For example, this Get Fit program is a tremendous opportunity and it's free.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon