Each and every Friday, physical activity leader and teacher Katie McAlinden at Ashburn Elementary gets over the intercom following attendance and leads the entire school in a physical activity for “Fitness Friday.” This is just one way Ashburn has upped its physical activity in the past several years, says Principal Jewel Diaz.
When Chicago Public Schools (CPS) adopted a new Physical Education (PE) Policy in January 2014 making physical education a core subject, many students were not getting daily PE or physical activity. The policy requires high-quality daily PE for all students, giving physical education the importance it deserves and ensuring that students receive the significant benefits of daily exercise. For elementary schools, a minimum of 30 minutes a day or the equivalent of 150 minutes per week is required. At the high school level, all students shall be scheduled in a PE course each semester in every grade unless special exemptions were granted.
Ashburn has increased the amount of time its students are spending in physical education, from just once or twice a week to every single day. But adding so many PE minutes—ramping up to 150 minutes per week—has not been easy for many schools, Ashburn included. Ashburn, located on Chicago’s southwest side, has only one PE teacher for its 500-plus students, no playground and a multipurpose room instead of a gym.
Despite all of those challenges, the school made it work because health and wellness are so important, Diaz says. “To me, a school can not be just about academics to be successful,” she says. “You have to be about the whole child. The social-emotional learning and health and wellness go hand in hand.”
The first way the school went about solving its PE resource problem was looking at the school schedule. “Because the PE minutes were mandated, that’s where we started the scheduling,” Diaz says. The school identified how many students the PE teacher Tom Loulousis could see in one school day and then creatively worked with the art and music teacher to offset scheduling gaps. A variety of scheduling scenarios took hold where a team of teachers worked together to figure out how they could make sure all students got more PE. This included teachers cross-teaching in different subjects. The school identified flexibility in the policy to allow 60 minutes per week of health education to be included in the PE programming for grades 5-8. With guidance from the PE teacher, the art and music teachers worked together to teach health to their students. The policy allows for the flexibility to pull in other teachers to help with health education.
In addition to creating the health and wellness committee mandated by the wellness policy, the school has also created a student health and wellness committee. This committee meets regularly to talk about school food and other wellness issues. Giving students a voice in their school increases their engagement and helps the school staff know what students really think, Diaz says.
The students have benefitted from this extra PE and physical activity time, Diaz says. The school has seen an increase in attendance, jumping from 93.4 percent average daily attendance in 2014 to 94.1 percent in 2015. “Students want to be involved in these health and wellness activities, so that’s going to make them want to go to school and be more engaged.”