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

The Aurora school board on Tuesday voted 5-2 to eliminate health and physical education from its graduation requirements, while increasing math, science and language requirements.

The move, which will go into effect with this fall’s incoming class of freshmen, is intended to insure that graduates will meet the requirements necessary for admission to a four-year college or university in Colorado.

But it also makes Aurora the only district in the state to abandon all P.E. requirements for high school students – a decision many bemoan in the face of Colorado’s rising epidemic of childhood obesity.

“This has been a very difficult decision,” said board member Mary Lewis, who voted in favor of the change. “I’ve listened to all sides, read every email that came across my desk. I’ve gone back and forth over the last few weeks.”

The board initially considered changing the graduation requirements at its meeting on Jan. 18, but delayed making a decision after hearing lengthy and impassioned pleas on both sides of the issue.

Lewis said what finally swayed her was the just-released report on remedial education that showed 55 percent of Aurora graduates accepted into Colorado institutions of higher education require remediation in at least one area. The statewide remediation rate is 32 percent.

“We have to do better. A high school diploma from Aurora Public Schools must mean more,” she said.

But the board declined to consider board member Jeannette Carmany’s compromise proposal to increase core academic requirements but to continue to require two semesters of either health or PE. The district currently requires three semesters of P.E., and one semester of health, as well as two semesters of fine arts, two semesters of practical arts and a semester of computer. The arts and computer requirements were also eliminated.

Increased core curriculum, “pathways” classes squeeze out other electives

The difficulty lies in the district’s commitment to creating academic and career “pathways” for its middle and high school students. They want students to have time in their schedules to take plenty of those pathway electives, which they believe will be key in keeping more students engaged in learning.

In addition, a number of students want to take college classes, which they can take for free and earn college credits while still in high school. Those classes also eat into the school day.

Add to that enormous scheduling problems as the district’s high schools move from an eight-period day to a seven-period day. Hinkley High School assistant principal Matthew Willis told the board that he must trim between 75 and 100 sections from next year’s class calendar, down from 480 that are offered this year.

Critics of the elimination of the P.E. requirements questioned whether students aren’t being given too much choice. Sonya Trimbath, a P.E. teacher at Aurora’s Rangeview High School, told the board she had surveyed 180 of her students, and 93 told her they would not take P.E. if it were not mandatory.

“And of the 87 who said they would take it, 20 were maybes,” she said. “To me, that’s alarming. I have kids right now who haven’t taken P.E. for three years. We’re looking at kids who take P.E. for 25 minutes a week in elementary school, and they don’t have to take it in middle school, and now they don’t have to take it in high school. And that’s going to provide them with the tools they need for a healthy lifestyle?”

Aurora legislator urges board to retain P.E. requirements

More than 15 speakers addressed the board, most of them pleading to keep the P.E. requirement. One of the speakers was Rep. Rhonda Fields, whose Colorado House district includes parts of Aurora.

Rep. Fields is one of two prime sponsors of a bill now working its way through the General Assembly to mandate that elementary schools provide a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week for students.

“I understand the critical role schools play in the total well-being of a student. It’s not just academics. It’s also wellness and fitness,” she told the board. “I applaud all you’re doing, however obesity is an issue in the nation and in Colorado. I understand the challenges you have in reference to your budget. But could there be some other option besides eliminating P.E. as a requirement?”

Superintendent John Barry attempted to calm the agitated opponents of the proposal.

“I want everyone to realize we’re not doing away with P.E.,” he said. “We’re not disconnecting health and P.E. while I’m superintendent. I want us to be the healthiest school district in the state. I think the best way to do that is to think different from the 20th century model of 1 ½ credits for P.E. and ½ credit for health. I think we can get our kids engaged in more healthy activities. I have faith in their ability to make good choices if we provide them with good choices.”

Board members urged Barry and William Stuart, the district’s chief academic officer, to do more to promote coordinated school health teams, and to include health and fitness issues when sixth-graders students and their parents meet with school counselors to draw up their Individual Career and Academic Plans, which will guide their class choices throughout middle and high school.

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