The Namaste Way: Physical Education Every Day

March 24, 2015

Namaste students have physical education every single day.

Namaste Charter School on Chicago’s southwest side embodies so many of the issues that are important to creating and maintaining a healthy school environment, including healthy school food, regular physical activity and parent engagement. A visit to the school is a visit to a world where students get the nutrition, activity and support they need to succeed — in school and in life — and it works! During the next several weeks, we’ll take a deep dive into some of Namaste’s successes with getting students to eat unflavored yogurt and drink plenty of water, ongoing professional development for staff and engaging parents. Click here to see all of the posts in the series.

The large gymnasium at Namaste Charter School in Chicago is full of natural light. One wall of the gross motor room features a full-length mirror. And the fitness center holds cardio equipment.

Yes, the K-8 school with 485 mostly low-income students has three dedicated spaces for physical education. And three full-time and one part-time physical education teachers, too. That’s because each student at the school receives 60 minutes of physical education Monday through Thursday and 40 minutes of PE on Friday. (The school has a shortened schedule that day.)

Students have one physical education class in each space each week, with a walk added in for good measure on one day. Students walk to McKinley Park, about a mile from the school. “At the beginning of the year, by the time they made it to the park, students had very little time to play,” founder and executive director Allison Slade says. “As they can walk faster, they have more time to play once they get there. It’s been great to see.”

And the physical education is not the type often portrayed in popular culture; there’s no rope climbing or kickball playing here. The school focuses on high-quality physical education and treats the subject in the same manner as it treats mathematics and English. PE teachers plan out lessons, which include assessments.

But the focus on physical education does mean the school can’t prioritize other areas. For example, Slade says, that while the school does offer art classes, they do not have a dedicated art teacher. “It’s about prioritizing,” Slade says. “You can’t be everything to everyone.”

Namaste was founded with the core principle that healthy students are better learners, so the focus on physical activity extends far beyond the scheduled physical education blocks. Each day starts with a 10-minute movement — usually incorporating yoga — to get students centered and ready for the day.

Movement is also integrated into the instructional day. For example, Slade says, for a 60-minute math block, 50 minutes of that would be instruction and 10 minutes would be a movement. Namaste ensures teachers know how to do this correctly, and a robust professional development program is headed up by Lola Pittenger, the school’s manager of health and wellness. In addition to the physical activity during the school day, students are also given 25 minutes for recess.

Not only are Namaste students seeing success in physical education, that success is translating into academic success: 86.9% of Namaste students met or exceeded state standards on the 2012 Illinois Standards Achievement Test. For Chicago Public Schools as a whole, that percentage was 74.2%.

Here at HSC, we spend a lot of time talking to policymakers about the importance of physical education and activity and how it helps students learn. Namaste is proof positive that incorporating physical activity and fitness into the school day can help students improve in all their scholarly endeavors.