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State recognizes schools for physical fitness, arts programs

In an era where test scores dominate discussions about education, a handful of schools received state recognition Friday for their physical fitness programs. Other groups were singled out for arts programs or career education.

Warren High School in Downey received the widest ranging recognition, with citations in fitness, arts and career education. Nearby Hutchinson Middle School in La Mirada was an honoree in the fitness category.

“We have a philosophy that a student needs to be a whole child, and that it’s not about academics alone,” said Sarah Gilbert, dean of students at Hutchinson. “Everything needs to come together.”

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The recognition for “exemplary” programs is an initiative launched by state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson. It’s intended to offer a counterpoint to the drumbeat of test score-based academic achievement while acknowleding the central role of academics, according to state officials.

Friday’s honorees were only eligible if they also won distinction as academically “distinguished” schools. That designation is based on test scores and a school’s ability to narrow the achievement gap that separates white and Asian students from low-income and black or Latino students.

At Hutchinson both Gilbert and Principal Sara Siemens have previously taught P.E., and they regard the state fitness standards with the acute attention that other schools may reserve only for academic testing.

Every week, for example, students go through drills that prepare them for the exact exercises that are part of a physical fitness test undertaken by seventh-graders statewide.

The tasks include limberness tests such as the back-arching trunk test and the sit-and-reach. There also are pull-ups, sit-ups and timed runs — and a clamp test that measures muscle tone and body fat. The state’s fitness test encompasses six categories including aerobic capacity, body composition and abdominal strength.

The competition for an exemplary designation also encompasses school nutrition efforts, staff wellness, community involvement in fitness and funding devoted to nutrition and physical activity.

A local hospital has pitched in by helping the staff learn how to lose weight and reduce stress.

Warren High in Downey was the only school to win in all available categories, which sometimes overlapped. The Garden Club grows food that is used in the culinary course, part of the career tech program.

The construction program, another career tech offering, is building a greenhouse and a tilapia farm that also will benefit the nutrition effort.

The arts program includes an all-male chorus of 125 and movement classes in tap and belly dancing.

Administrators take advantage of the school’s large size, about 3,700 students, to offer an array of extracurricular activities and sports.

Students “can find a calling and not get lost, because they are able to connect with a smaller group,” said Assistant Principal Laura Rivas.

“It’s not a zero-sum game or an either/or equation,” where academics means sacrificing other valuable aspects of school, said Stephanie Papas, a health education specialist with the California Department of Education. Schools really should try to “do it all,” she said.

Other schools honored in the fitness category were Canyon Middle School in Alameda County and Oak Park High School in Ventura County.

An L.A. Unified charter campus, Renaissance Arts Academy, was among 13 schools recognized in the arts category. Other L.A. County schools were Hart High in Hart Unified and South Point Middle School in Walnut Valley Unified.

The other honoree besides Warren High in the career tech category was Vail Ranch Middle School in Riverside County.

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howard.blume@latimes.com


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