Physical education students at Aurora Central High School do push-ups in class.

Aurora Public Schools – a district that has pioneered a number of initiatives to fight obesity and promote wellness – could also become the only school district in Colorado to eliminate physical education from its graduation requirements.

On Tuesday night, the board will consider a proposal to better align its core academic requirements with Colorado’s Higher Education Admission Requirements, the entry requirements for students hoping to attend any of the state’s four-year institutions. If approved, the change would increase the requirements for math, science, social studies and languages, and scrap the requirements for physical education, health, practical and fine arts, and computer skills.

The reason: Under existing requirements, a student could graduate from an Aurora high school yet be denied admission to a state university for lack of enough core academic credits. As part of its Vista 2015 five-year strategic plan, the district has resolved to ensure that every APS graduate can enter college or other post-secondary training without need of remediation.

But APS has also begun to implement a program of academic and career “pathways” for its middle and high school students. The four pathways – arts and communication; business; health sciences; and science, technology, engineering and math – will provide students with classes and hands-on work in those interest areas. Within the next four years, every school in APS will offer at least one of the four pathways.

Those pathway classes, in addition to the extra core requirements, will eat up time in students’ schedules. So to free up time and provide more flexibility for students, the other requirements would be dropped. Classes would still be offered in those subjects, but only as electives.

School officials say student choice leads to better engagement

“We want to provide as much engagement as possible for students with their course work,” said William Stuart, the district’s chief academic officer. “If they make the choice to take the class, there’s a greater likelihood of learning. We want students to deeply explore areas of interest and passion. We want them to take coursework in addition to their core requirements in areas of interest.”

But many do not share Stuart’s vision. A packed house turned out to debate the changes on Jan. 18, when the proposed change in graduation requirements was up for consideration by the school board. Speaker after speaker urged board members not to approve the changes, fearing it would gut physical education.

“We were aware it was being proposed, but we didn’t believe it would be initiated for a couple of years,” said Christopher Magrin, P.E. teacher at Aurora’s Rangeview High School. “We were surprised by the speed. We thought we would have time to sit down with the administration and work this out.”

In light of the concerns, the school board voted to table the proposal until Feb. 1.

“We wanted time to gather more information and make an informed decision,” said board chairwoman Amy Prince. “At this point, I can’t tell you what we’ll do. Right now, I’m just going through all the information that’s been given to me and hope to be ready on Feb. 1.”

District has been a leader in innovative health programs

District officials say their commitment to health and physical fitness in the district remains strong, and that they will continue to encourage students not only to enroll in elective P.E. classes, but to make physical activity an important part of their day, both in school and out.

“We believe we’re providing a foundation that shows physical activity is important, and we’re saying that it needs to happen beyond the school day,” said Susan Olezene, student achievement director for APS.

Indeed, the district has a track record of innovative programs to encourage healthy students and staff. It has a Coordinated School Health Team to look for ways to promote better nutrition, health and increased physical activity. Its Go, Slow, Whoa nutrition education program for elementary schools is nationally admired. Its school kitchen managers participated in “culinary boot camps” last summer to help them offer more nutritious meals made from scratch.

Also, the district adopted a new P.E. curriculum four years ago that involves regularly assessing and tracking the fitness level of every elementary and middle school student twice a year, starting in third grade.

But critics of the proposed changes say that’s not enough. They say that by eliminating the requirement for physical education in high school, the district is sending the wrong message. They see it as devaluing physical education, even as study after study shows that engaging in regular physical activity helps students to excel in their other academic classes. And they point out that the students most in need of help getting fit are the ones least likely to enroll in an elective P.E. class.

“There’s always a fear for physical educators and elective teachers that their programs could be cut because of the increased emphasis on tested subjects,” said Terry Jones, senior consultant for health and physical education for the Colorado Department of Education. “I think, in any district, when graduation requirements are adjusted, everybody’s eyes are opened. They always seem to adjust down and require less P.E. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen P.E. requirements adjusted upward.”

No statewide requirements for P.E.

Colorado is one of four states that have no statewide minimum P.E. requirements for students. Some Colorado lawmakers – alarmed by statistics that show one in four Colorado children is obese or overweight and that the state’s child obesity ranking dropped from third-leanest in the country to 23rd between 2003 and 2007 – have introduced a bill to require elementary schools to provide a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity during the school day. That bill is set for a hearing on Feb. 7.

No one keeps track of P.E. requirements in each of the state’s 178 individual school districts. But surveys indicate that every district requires high school students to take at least one semester, and most require two to three semesters, with many also requiring a semester of health.

Sue Barnd, president of the Colorado Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance and a professor of physical education at Metropolitan State College, said that while many Colorado districts have revised their graduation requirements recently in response to the tougher college entrance requirements, she knows of no other districts contemplating similar elimination of P.E. graduation requirements.

“But we don’t know that they won’t, so it could go further,” she said. “What comes next is hard to say.”

Elective P.E. classes would become more enticing

APS officials point out that 40 percent of high school students in the district take more than the currently required 1.5 credits. Thus, they expect P.E. to continue to be popular even if it is not mandatory.

More importantly, they will encourage P.E. teachers to rethink their classes and to design classes that fit more neatly into a pathway, so that students will more readily see the link between fitness and their desired career path.

Hinkley High School principal Jinger Haberer said she has brainstormed with the P.E. teachers at her school about creating a healthy lifestyles class.

“We thought about how you can’t have a successful business man or successful health sciences people unless they are physically fit,” she told school board members on Jan. 18, when the board initially considered the changes. “We could look at really developing our sports medicine and exercise physiology, as well as team sports and recreational sports. This would show students all the opportunities that they have to make healthy living part of their lifestyle. We believe that tying it to pathways would help them to see the relevance of it rather than a separate P.E. 1 type class.”

And, say proponents of the changes, the existing mandatory P.E. classes haven’t done much to curb the district’s growing obesity problem. “We have to look at the statistics,” Stuart said. “Our current system is not making the dent in obesity that we need to have. We’re hopeful that with new ways to think about P.E., we might be more effective.”

Stuart is clear that he doesn’t believe Aurora’s P.E. instructors have failed in their efforts or that the district’s existing P.E. curriculum is boring or inadequate. Indeed, Clayton Ellis, P.E. instructor at Aurora Central High School, last year was named America’s High School P.E. Teacher of the Year. The irony of that is lost on no one.

“The implication is not that our P.E. coursework is bad,” Stuart said. “It’s very good. We want to make it better, more enticing for kids.”

Next steps

  • Aurora school board members are scheduled to vote Feb. 1 on the proposed changes. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at 1085 Peoria St. See agenda.

Current APS graduation requirements – 22 credits total

  • Math – 3.0
  • Science – 2.5
  • English – 4.0
  • Social studies – 3.0 (including 1.0 of U.S. history and .5 of civics)
  • Practical arts – 1.0
  • Computer – 0.5
  • Fine arts – 1.0
  • Physical education – 1.5
  • Health – 0.5
  • Electives – 5.0

Proposed APS graduation requirements – 22 credits total

  • Math – 4.0
  • Science – 3.0
  • English – 4.0
  • Social studies – 3.0 (including 1.0 of U.S. history and .5 of civics)
  • World language – 1.0
  • Electives – 7.0

CCHE admission requirements, 4-year universities

  • English – 4.0
  • Math – 4.0
  • Natural/physical sciences – 3.0 (including two years of lab-based science)
  • Social sciences – 3.0
  • Foreign language – 1.0
  • Academic electives – 2.0

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