Schools manage to fit in fitness

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Anyone who has tried to control a single first-grader can develop a deep admiration for Michelle Glick.

On a recent morning at Armstrong Elementary School in Rogers Park, she led a large group of 6- and 7-year-olds in an intense 30-minute cardio workout as the children identified the major muscles and recited the importance of good hydration, sleep and nutrition. When done, every child was relaxed and silent on the floor.Minutes later, they returned to their chairs, alert and ready to learn.

Glick runs Stretch-N-Grow, an in-class fitness program that operates in 22 Chicago-area elementary schools. It and other efforts that offer dancing, yoga and cardio training to Chicago Public Schools students help augment -- or are a substitute for -- physical education programs.

Illinois, which has the nation's fourth-highest childhood obesity level, requires schools to offer daily physical education. But most public schools in Chicago offer it only once a week or less -- a far cry from First Lady Michelle Obama's recently announced initiative of 60 minutes of exercise a day for schoolchildren.

City school officials say budget constraints are to blame. Spokeswoman Monique Bond says the budget deficit -- a half-billion dollars last year -- has not improved and "crosses into almost every area of food service and physical education programs."

"The other issue is that the length of the school day has to be taken into consideration and instructional learning hours are the priority," Bond said.

The Illinois State Board of Education says Chicago Public Schools has never applied for a waiver that is available to school districts that cannot meet the daily requirement.

Suburban districts, such as in Schaumburg, Naperville and Park Ridge, offer P.E. at least twice a week in lower grades (along with additional daily movement sessions), and every day in upper grades.

These disparities may explain why a Chicago Health Data Labreport released last week showed that only one in three Chicago-area high school students is getting government-recommended levels of physical activity. In the rest of the state, half of students are getting the required levels of exercise, exceeding the national average.

Stretch-N-Grow, a national franchise, allows schools to boost physical activity without having to build a new gym or make the day longer. Schools can pay between $1,000 and $3,000 for a 10-week program depending on their size, and parents can pay for after-school programs.

Armstrong Principal Otis Dunson brought the program back after hearing from teachers and students.

"With the growing childhood obesity rates and our only being able to offer gym once a week, we wanted to bring in another kind of physical activity," Dunson said. "During the cold weather months this gives us another way to get oxygen flowing and prepare them to really start focusing on the tests."

Rogers School Principal Christine Jabari said she would recommend the program, which has been presented weekly to first- through sixth-graders for five years. Teachers were initially skeptical, she said, but, "then they saw how it affected the students and now it's just built into the curriculum and into our budget each year."

Because the gym also is where breakfast and lunch are served, Rogers can offer physical education classes only once a week. So this is "a very inexpensive way to help students learn exercises they can do at home and stay healthier, especially in this time of rising obesity," Jabari said.

Beth Mahar, former president of the Illinois Association Health Physical Education Recreation and Dance, was not surprised by Chicago's sad showing on physical activity compared with the rest of the state.

"A lot of urban kids don't have safe places to be active," she said. "So it's ironic that the safest place -- their school -- would offer them so little physical activity and even waive the physical education requirement for many in 11th and 12th grade."

Chicago Public Schools does run a program in 15 schools, at the initiation of the late School Board President Michael Scott, which teaches ballroom dancing for 20 weeks to fifth-graders. Scott launched it five years ago after seeing the film "Mad Hot Ballroom," about New York City students.

Initially, teachers were concerned that the sessions three times a week would leave students less prepared for standardized tests, said Jesus Esquivel, field officer for the Chicago Public Schools Office of Arts Education. "But once they saw how it contributed to the confidence of the whole student, reduced discipline problems while not hurting their test grades, they completely bought into it," he said.

Eighty percent of the dance program is funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant and the remainder by the school board. The grant requires an assessment of student development in the classes.

Weaving dance into the school day takes effort. At May Elementary Community Academy on the West Side, boys and girls cha-cha'ed to a Rosemary Clooney song one recent morning. Music teacher Valerie Betts and P.E. teacher Tim Anderson pooled their blocks of time each week and the school came up with another period through creative scheduling.

Once the kids get going, their enthusiasm takes over and the fourth-graders start looking forward to their fifth-grade dance classes, Betts said.

"I like the tango because you really get to express yourself and show off what a good dancer you are," said Kentrell Bell, 10.

"I really like the pasodoble because of the drag," said Rayshawn Field, 11, who plans to take more dance classes.

More limited efforts to keep students fit include the NFL Network's "Keep Gym in School" grants that help improve P.E. programs. Last month Williams Preparatory Academy Middle School on the Near South Side got $50,000 to revamp its gym and equipment. The network also has launched programs in 50 Chicago schools that measure student fitness near the beginning and end of the school year and reward the most improved student with a trip to New York.

At Namaste Charter Elementary School -- one of the few Chicago schools that comply with state law -- students receive 60 minutes of P.E. each day, including a weekly 2.2-mile hike to a local park. They also start each morning with yoga, get a daily 25 minutes of recess and will soon have a fitness room with weight machines and treadmills.

These kinds of strides are made possible by school fundraising, more flexible charter school rules and an 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day.

Another charter school, the new Chicago Bulls College Prep Elementary School on the West Side, offers 80 minutes, or the equivalent of two gym classes, to students each day. Athletic director Steve Silva said "it's a lot of circuit training, core work, ab work and sprints. ... It's amazing to see their improved fitness and weight loss."

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meng@tribune.com

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