Updated May 2–As part of a major reorganization announced this spring, Denver Public Schools cut its physical education director and moved his responsibilities to an employee who oversees art, music and drama.

The mid-year elimination of the position–held by Eric Larson for the last 13 years—puzzles some health advocates who worry it represents a step backward for the district, especially in light of its new “whole child” approach.

“It’s disappointing to see,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications at LiveWell Colorado. “It implies they’re not making physical education an administrative priority.”

Statement from “P.E. For All Colorado Coalition”

    “As a coalition of groups dedicated to increasing both the quantity and quality of physical education in our schools, we are disappointed to see that our state’s largest school district has decided not to make it an administrative priority.
    Children need education to develop an active lifestyle and make regular physical activity a part of their adult life. Physical activity helps kids maintain a healthy weight, reduces health risks associated with obesity, and contributes to mental wellness, engagement in school and educational achievement.
    Because we understand this change at DPS was part of a larger reorganization, we are currently engaged with the district to better understand their plans going forward and how physical education will continue to be a priority. We are confident that Denver residents share our goals because of their 2012 approval of funding to increase physical education in the schools, and we hope the district will join us in ensuring that intention is being honored.”

Coalition members

  • American Heart Association, Colorado chapter
  • A+ Denver
  • Athletic Excellence, LLC
  • Colorado Children’s Campaign
  • Colorado Governor’s Council for Active and Healthy Lifestyles
  • Colorado Health Foundation
  • Children’s Hospital Colorado
  • LiveWell Colorado
  • Padres Unidos
  • SHAPE Colorado

A statewide coalition of foundations and other groups –called “P.E. For All Colorado”–echoed Kurz’s concerns in a statement. The statement also called on DPS to honor the intent of Denver voters who passed a 2012 mill levy in part to support physical education.

Kyle Legleiter, a senior public policy officer for the Colorado Health Foundation, said the decision is especially concerning because Colorado is one of only four states that has no state-level requirements for physical education.

As a result, he said, “These local-level district decision have a big impact on what’s available for kids.”

In addition to cutting Larson’s position, the district withdrew a job posting this spring seeking an employee to write a physical education strategic plan for the district. That job will not be filled.

Physical activity during the school day has particularly big implications in Denver, where 38 percent of children, aged two to 14, are overweight or obese, according to the 2015 KIDS COUNT report.

In an emailed statement sent Friday evening, DPS officials didn’t explain the rationale for eliminating Larson’s position but said, “For the Arts and Physical Education enrichment content areas, district support and resources for schools will continue and will likely increase with the addition of one instructional curriculum specialist in Physical Education.” (See the district’s full statement at the end of this story.)

Overall, the restructuring, which will eliminate approximately 110  positions and add several dozen others to the central office, has been described as an effort to shift more resources and expertise to schools.

Larson, who attended Denver schools and worked for the district for 35 years, was described by colleagues as a great leader with a national reputation. Last year, he was named “Physical Education Administrator of the Year” by the professional organization SHAPE America.

Reached at home this morning, he said he didn’t know all the factors that went into the decision to cut his job. Still, he was circumspect about the outcome.

“I’m not bitter. I’m not upset or frustrated because I’ve been blessed to be in DPS this long and our department has made an impact on the lives of teachers and students.”

A shifting model

Among the five most populous districts in Colorado, only Jeffco Public Schools still has a full time district-level physical education coordinator.

That employee is Dave Yonkie, who said the position has existed for at least 10 years.

“We’re very fortunate,” he said.

Aurora Public Schools uses a model similar to the one that DPS will now have—with one district-level employee overseeing physical education and the arts.

In the Cherry Creek School District, middle and high schools have on-site physical education directors, but there is no district-level P.E. coordinator. In Douglas County, a district-level Electives/Social Studies coordinator oversees P.E. “teacher leads” at the elementary, middle and high levels.

Improving quality

Colleagues say that as PE director, Larson was a seasoned administrator who put a premium on high-quality teacher training and helped the district win millions of dollars in physical education grants. One such award was a federal grant that helped beef up opportunities for the often-ignored high school population.

“That’s been super successful,” said Shawn St. Sauveur, a healthy schools coordinator for DPS.

Larson also helped update the district’s P.E. curriculum and pushed to increase the amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity that students do during P.E. class.

C.J. Cain, a physical education teacher at Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment, said he knew of Larson even before he moved from Florida to Colorado in 2011.

I was “aware of Eric and the quality of the physical education programs in Denver,” he said. “He had that type of reputation.”

Cain said he hopes the district’s P.E. teachers decide not to be demoralized by the decision to cut Larson, “and honor Eric by continuing to build on the great foundation…he’s left for everybody.”