It's a stretch for schools to find enough space for P.E.

Times Staff Writer

Say "squishy-squashy" and students immediately know what to do in the model physical education program at Van Nuys Middle School.

It means "move in close enough to touch somebody, but don't," one administrator explained. The command is an attention-getting time-saver -- before or after a physical activity -- when teachers need to be heard.

But metaphorically, the invented word could apply to P.E. in the Los Angeles Unified School District as a whole. Squishy-squashy could stand for oversized P.E. classes that become too squished -- and a curriculum that, as a result, gets altogether too squashed.

Reducing class size is being trumpeted as one of two key goals -- along with raising salaries -- of the teachers union leadership as it negotiates a new contract. And although class sizes are uncomfortably large at most grade levels and in many subjects, nowhere are they more packed than in P.E.

Last year, the five largest P.E. classes were at Emerson Middle School (123 students); Fremont High (90 students); Poly High (85 students); Griffith Middle (80 students), and Gompers Middle (76 students). At least four middle schools had average classes of more than 60 and at least five high schools averaged more than 56, according to district data.

Although new state funding and other state and local efforts could improve the picture, the story is similar this year. In essence, P.E. teachers frequently handle double classes. And they typically have to herd their charges without the aid of four walls.

"Why would they think one human being could take care of 70 students?" said Freddie Thompson-Esters, a P.E. teacher who specializes in dance at Hollywood High. "We're expected to run a good, productive program, and it's just impossible. First and foremost, it's a safety problem."

It's also a problem given that P.E. instructors, like other teachers, want to teach -- and now have new and newly enforced state standards to contend with. The large classes result in wasted time, student disinterest and sometimes students ditching class, instructors say.

Administrators haven't focused much on P.E. because their schools' reputations rely so completely on academic test scores. But fitness is a matter of life and death for many students.

More than 36% of Los Angeles fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are overweight, concluded a 2005 report from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. And 82% of ninth-graders in L.A. Unified are not physically fit, as judged by state fitness evaluations released this month -- though that's an improvement over last year's 87% failure rate.

"This is the first generation in the history of the country in which our children will have a lower life expectancy than their parents if present trends in obesity and inactivity continue," said Robert Garcia, executive director of the City Project, which advocates for equal access to parks, schools and health services.

The challenge of managing an effective physical fitness and education program is paradoxically underscored by the success of Van Nuys Middle School. The 12.7-acre campus of 1,550 students is frequently singled out as an exception, with its aggressive pursuit of grants, its dedicated and long-serving staff, a supportive administration and a sense of mission.

Van Nuys has worked to keep classes somewhat smaller, but one class still has 68 and the average is just under 50, said Jim Clemmensen, who works closely with the P.E. department while coordinating the school's magnet program for math and science.

Classes are spaced far enough apart so students don't distract each other. And youngsters are immediately taught that a teacher's double-clap requires instant attention to the code word that follows.

Hence the highly technical, instantly understood term squishy-squashy. With class periods less than an hour and time needed to change clothes twice -- into and out of shorts or sweats -- any time-saver helps.

One recent day, the student quad, typically an area for socializing, did double duty during classes as a Frisbee golf course. Simultaneously, about 60 students squeezed into a second-floor, undersized gym that would barely contain a regulation basketball court. There, students moved through the paces of kick-boxing. Outside, 50 others scampered across asphalt basketball courts performing running, shooting and dribbling drills. Across the way, Kurt A. Krueger was getting ready to test students on self-defense skills.

The students were notably on task: All were dressed in gym clothes; they scurried through their paces; they kick-boxed with determination; they curved Frisbees into red buckets.

Betsy Klein's ball-handling drills including dribbling while sitting down, passing "the rock" from hand to hand, throwing the ball in the air and clapping hands behind the back before catching it. Though some balls were obviously well worn, every student had one, as well as the other equipment they needed -- a notable distinction from some schools that appear perpetually equipment-starved.

That's not the only point of contrast, especially when the issue is crowding.

When Van Nuys Middle began to grow quickly, school administrators asked the P.E. department where new classroom bungalows would create the least disruption. Elsewhere, such "portable" buildings have effectively chopped up recreation space -- with much of the rest covered by asphalt.

The school system's $19.3-billion construction program and declining enrollment will help. The school district already has added 800 acres of grassy space to new and existing campuses. Artificial turf will replace asphalt at nine middle and high schools to provide a cooler, more useful surface for sports. More than $9.4 million has been spent for "greening" projects, although some are small in scale, such as rows of bushes.

There remain plenty of campuses, however, like 28th Street Elementary south of downtown. The school is located near a plating plant that families and faculty accuse of causing cancer and respiratory ailments. It's also a campus where a patch of grass is nearly impossible to find.

Nor is that the end of the problems afflicting P.E. Virtually no Los Angeles elementary school has an organized physical education program under a fully qualified P.E. specialist. The vast majority fail to comply with state requirements of 200 genuine physical education minutes every 10 days. Recess doesn't count -- nor does a loosely supervised playground, even if it's called P.E. on the class schedule. Such problems are not unique to L.A. Unified, though some California school districts do much better and some states get higher marks than California as a whole.

But attention to the issue is growing as officials absorb the sobering data on children's health. State lawmakers this year approved $40 million in ongoing funds for elementary and middle schools to hire credentialed P.E. teachers. Statewide, the money will pay much of the salary for as many as 1,100 new teachers.

Separate legislation provides $500 million in onetime money for professional development, equipment and supplies to be used for P.E. as well as the visual and performing arts.

And a lawsuit settlement over school funding between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Teachers Assn. could provide extra dollars for class size reduction.

As part of contract negotiations, L.A. Unified officials have offered limited funds to reduce overall class sizes while asserting that to do more would cut into their salary offer. But one change, which occurred two years ago, has been widely appreciated and praised by P.E. teachers -- even though technically it adds to what union officials characterize as the "bloated bureaucracy": For the first time in a dozen years, the district now has a P.E. specialist to assist schools districtwide.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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