At Boulder’s Fairview High School, gym class feels a lot like a trip to the rec center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, as second hour physical education class began, some students snapped up colorful pinnies so they could join the indoor soccer game. Others hustled downstairs to the school’s weight room or to a converted racquetball court filled with spin bikes. Still others filed into the wrestling room where Zumba lessons were about to begin.

Students were free to choose where and how they would complete the day’s work-out. The class, called “PE by Choice,” represents Fairview’s attempt to remake its physical education program around fitness, personal effort and the idea that exercise readies the brain for learning. At the same time, it’s one example of how the state’s high school physical education standards, which emphasize lifelong fitness and individual goal-setting, translate into daily practice.

Aside from one dance-focused PE offering at Fairview, gone are the days where all students focused on one sport whether they loved it or hated it, excelled or struggled. The new approach, which requires fitness testing three times a semester and the use of heart rate monitors up to four days a week, still includes team sports but to a lesser degree.

In any given week, there is a choice of up to 10 different activities, ranging from sand volleyball to yoga. Despite the raft of options, some students were reluctant about the new version of PE program at first, said Rob Vandepol, a PE and health teacher who helped spearhead the effort.

Zumba was one of the choices during a recent PE class at Fairview High School.
Zumba was one of the choices during a recent PE class at Fairview High School.

“We had a bunch of kids who were like, ‘No, it’s going be too hard,'” he said. “They [were] just not really understanding what the program is about. It’s about individual improvement and doing things that you enjoy.”

Ninth-grader Odali Arvalo, one of the few girls who chose soccer during the recent second period class, said she likes the variety.

“Sometimes you do get bored of always having to do the same thing…Not every sport suits you. So you need to find something that does. I think it’s better instead of everybody choosing for you.”

Daily PE activity choices at Fairview High
  • Ball sport: tennis, volleyball, basketball, soccer, floor hockey, pickle ball, ultimate Frisbee, handball or dodge ball
  • Fitness class: Yoga, dance, pilates, interval training or jogging
  • Cardio room: Spin bikes, tread mill and elliptical machine
  • Weight room

For the PE staff, the new model entails some logistical challenges–at times requiring three teachers to supervise up to 120 students in four locations. During the recent second period PE class, Vandepol split his time between the soccer game and the cardio room, walking briskly down the hall from one to the other every five or 10 minutes. The other two teachers manned the weight room and wrestling room.

“We have supervision issues,” he admitted, describing how he and other teachers sometimes scramble to keep an eye on everybody.

“At some point, you have to decide what is really good for kids,” he said. “I don’t want anything bad to happen, but I guess what I’m saying is, this is good for kids.”

Inspiration in Illinois

Fairview’s new PE program was inspired by a similar effort launched a decade ago at Naperville Central High School in Illinois. That school, which VanDePol and other Fairview staff visited in 2012, was featured in the influential book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” by Harvard psychiatry professor John Ratey.

The details of the two programs vary somewhat, but both put a premium on student choice, continuous fitness assessment and effort-based grading. At Fairview, students are assigned a fitness level ranging from one to four at the beginning of the semester based on scores from standard tests of cardio, endurance, strength and flexibility.

Components of “PE by Choice” grade
  • 40 percent -At least 25 minutes of activity in the heart rate “zone,” at least 140 beats per minute
  • 25 percent -Improved fitness score after mid-semester and end-of-semester fitness testing
  • 25 percent -Participation, includes dressing for class and being involved
  • 10 percent-Written knowledge test

Students in Group 1 — anywhere from 17-33 percent of students after the first round of testing — are the fittest students, required to wear a heart rate monitor just once a week. Group 2 students wear the monitors twice a week, Group 3 students wear them three times a week and Group 4 students wear them on all four weekly PE days.

On the days students wear the monitors, the goal is get at least 25 minutes in “the zone,” which is a heart rate of at least 140 beats per minute. Achieving that goal on the number of days required by their fitness level accounts for 40 percent of students’ grades. If students fall short of the goal, they don’t get full credit.

For Kaelec Signorelli, a football player who’d landed in Group 4, the format seemed to provide a refreshing sense of autonomy.

“You actually get to decide who you want to be,” he said. “Are you going to be the big slacker who…doesn’t get your heart rate up? Or you can be the athletic person who tries to actually do this stuff.”

Broadening access

One hoped-for benefit of Fairview’s new approach to PE is that it will engage a wider swath of students, not just those who can score goals or slam dunk. As Vandepol watched the fast-paced indoor soccer game, he noted that not everyone finds ball sports a good fit.

Fairview PE teacher Rob VanDePol outlines the rules before a recent soccer game during PE.
Fairview PE teacher Rob VanDePol outlines the rules before a recent soccer game during PE.

“Most of the kids in the cardio room, they would be the typical group that would suck together and try not to get hit by the ball in here…so we’re trying to do a big social change.”

That’s not to say that he doesn’t want students to try new activities. In fact, PE by Choice encourages cross-training by awarding extra points if students try more than one activity category a week. In part, it’s because different activities promote different athletic skills, but building up a repertoire that lends itself to lifelong activity is also part of the equation.

As Vandepol pitched students on the long list of activities available as he wrapped up his recent class, he touched on the obstacles that plague many adults when it comes to exercise.

“We want you to get a jog on because sometime later in life you might not be able to get to the weight room and get to the gym and play with all your buddies… but you might be able to get home from work at 6 o’clock at night and just go for a jog and you’ll feel better.”

It’s a theme contained in the high school section of state’s physical education standards, adopted in 2009.

“Overall, our PE program is going toward lifetime physical activities,” said Sue Brittenham, a physical education consultant for the Colorado Department of Education. “It really tends to gravitate away from the team sports.”

She added, “It’s kind of hard to get a group of adults together to play flag football.”

Time and money

While PE by Choice seems to be catching on at Fairview, don’t expect to see it widely copied across Colorado just yet. Even Vandepol, an ardent proponent, knows it’s a hard sell.

“My hope is that it eventually will [spread]…but I know that change takes a really long time, especially in education.”

He said PE teachers at other district high school have expressed interest in the concept and some already offer a choice of activities, but they don’t use heart rate monitors to measure effort or hold students accountable.

These watches are part of the heart rate monitor that students wear during PE.
These watches are part of the heart rate monitors that students wear during PE.

Meanwhile, at least one middle school in the Jeffco district uses pedometers much the same way Fairview uses heart rate monitors, but the choice component is absent. Whether it’s because of staffing limitations, space constraints or liability concerns, the idea of sending students to multiple locations during PE is an obvious sticking point for many schools.

“I know there’s some high schools there’s no way that could happen,” said Brittenham. “There’s no way you could have them not be directly supervised.”

The technology price tag is also formidable. Fairview, where all students must take three semesters of PE to graduate, spent about $12,000 on heart rate monitors as well as extra chest straps so students could have their own.

Money and other challenges aside, students like Mariano Kemp believe PE by Choice makes sense. The ninth-grader, a half back on the freshman football team, had a sheen of sweat on his face after a he spent the recent second-period class lifting weights.

“It’s really…how they should treat a PE class, to get the kids as fit as possible, to push you to the best [of your] ability.”