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$900,000 grant to transform phys ed at Vergennes-area schools

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union this summer won a U.S. Department of Education grant that could total more than $900,000 in the next three years, an award that officials believe will help transform physical education in ANwSU schools and boost students’ academic performance while putting them on the path toward lifetime fitness.

The grant, one of 96 the DOE awarded in 2008, will pay for fitness equipment that will include high-tech heart-rate monitors, low-rope climbing courses at the three ANwSU elementary schools and a high-ropes course at Vergennes Union High School, in-line and ice skates, cross-country skis, snowshoes and dance video games.

It will also fund healthy after-school activities to be offered jointly with community groups that include the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes and the Willowell Foundation.

But ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said more importantly that the Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant would help create a “culture change” at the four schools.

“Assuming that over the three years of the grant we are able to establish the goals ... it is a culture change,” O’Brien said. “It’s much more of a focus on personal fitness, and personal responsibility for fitness ... that will last (students) for their lifetime ... And the increased physical activity, at least according to the research, will have some benefit in the classroom. I’d say this is pretty significant.”

The grant was fleshed out by ANwSU curriculum coordinator Carol Spencer, VUHS PE teacher Ed Cook and Vergennes Union Elementary School PE teacher Robyn Newton, and then polished by a professional grant-writer, for whose services Newton won a grant.

For Cook and Newton, the DOE grant can help change the focus of PE away from competitive ball sports and to personal fitness activities. 

“It’s going to validate what we’re doing,” Newton said. “This is about your body. This is about fitness ... This is going to get kids out and more energetic and give them more opportunities ... to do something beyond their normal routines of walking the dog and playing a videogame after school every day.”

Cook is optimistic the changes can produce healthier, fitter students, especially with changes — including teachers incorporating more physical activity in their classrooms — and equipment spreading to all ANwSU students.

Elementary school students will see an entirely fresh approach to PE, Cook said.

“We can lay a lot of groundwork in these three years in the way we teach our kids,” he said. “Those kids are going to have five or six years in training in how the whole fitness-in-the-classroom and fitness in phys ed and lifelong learning works down there ... The wave’s going to be big.”

ACADEMIC PLUSES

Spencer said the changes should go far beyond fitness. She has been studying the work of Dr. John J. Ratey, author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

Ratey’s research shows, Spencer said, that exercise sparks brain activity that enhances intelligence and academic potential — schools that have put in place regular exercise programs show dramatic improvement in test scores and disciplinary problems.

“The over-arching idea is that all of us can enhance every child’s learning by increasing the amount of physical activity throughout the day and throughout the week,” Spencer said.

For example, according to Ratey, by introducing daily PE schools in Kansas and Missouri saw roughly 60 percent drops in disciplinary measures, and California School District 203 reduced its rate of obesity to 3 percent, compared to a statewide average of 33 percent. And a California study conducted in 2001 showed a strong correlation between students’ ability to meet fitness standards and higher math and reading scores.

“When you lower obesity in a child, achievement increases,” Spencer said. “There couldn’t be a more level-the-playing-field, cutting-edge moment for us.”

Spencer said neurologists also have proven that exercise sparks the brain not only during activity, but also for 90 minutes afterward, and creates new brain cells. The former language teacher would have her students “up and moving” more often if she were still teaching. 

“I would have kids use all kinds of movement ... It actually helps long-term memory, because it allows muscle memory to become involved with words, and that strengthens it,” she said. “But it also is sparking the brain.”

Officials, therefore, were unanimous in saying teacher involvement in the PE culture change will be critical. PE is only a part-time course at ANwSU schools, and PE teachers cannot alone meet the goals of the grant.

But all interviewed also said initial feedback from teachers has been positive about making changes in their classrooms and beyond.

“A lot of teachers are saying, now that they have permission, so to speak, they can take 10 minutes in the middle of their class and do some yoga, do a couple little things,” Cook said. “I’ve had nothing but positive responses from the teachers.”

CHANGING THE FACE OF PE

Newton and Cook themselves are eager to move away from the traditional ball-sport model of gym class.

“Another part was how to figure out to change the old philosophy of PE,” Newton said. “It’s about more lifelong learning and more fitness.”

That’s why they applied for money for the low- and high-ropes courses at each of the schools and made sure that the ANwSU elementary schools had the same fitness equipment.

“We just didn’t want to buy equipment to buy equipment. It was, ‘Let’s really change our program ... so that when they’re getting into the high school it’s not Ferrisburgh kids can do this and Vergennes kids can do this and Addison kids can do this,” Newton said. “So it started as what can we do to equalize the three elementary schools.”

The ropes courses are intended to build social skills such as trust and cooperation, as are many other new activities. Cook said students have already begun to buy into the changes in philosophy; he described a group discussion after recent session of group fitness activities.

“We sat down and asked why do we do this. And it was rattling off, ‘We’re doing this because of trust and respect and communication,’” Cook said. “Part of it is the fitness and making them healthier, but it’s also making them better people when they get into science class or get into a job, being able to work in groups and do the things they need to do to be functioning members of society.”

Newton said officials hope families and youths will benefit from being able to use equipment like the ropes and Frisbee golf courses and borrowing snowshoes or inline skates, and that residents can also become involved by tapping the grant’s funds for establishing after-school activities to provide more movement and exercise for students.

“We’re trying to find people to offer a yoga class or a Pilates class, or kickboxing, or anything that might drum up some interest in kids,” Newton said. “We’re trying to target kids that are not ... involved in everything, that are not three-sport athletes. We’re trying to find things for kids who are going home and being sedentary.”

HEART-RATE MONITORS

Back in the classroom, the heart rate monitors will play a major role in helping students take responsibility for their fitness, Cook said.

The two-piece monitors have chest units that measure heart rates and broadcast the information to wrist units. Dials on the wrist units let students know if they are reaching their target heart rate through exercise. That data can later be downloaded into a student’s file, and they and their teachers can learn how much class time students spent reaching that goal. Students’ progress can also be tracked over the years.

Newton said students will no longer be compared on athletic ability, but, if at all, on how hard they work during classes.

“It’s basically going to equalize the students. It’s about effort, not who comes in first or who comes in last,” she said.

Cook won a grant for a small batch of monitors a year ago, and found that students responded well to them.

“I have kids in my personal fitness classes constantly looking at their watches and saying, ‘I’m getting out of my target zone, and I have to get back in there.” They’re really gaining the benefit of exercise and really owning how they work,” he said.

One band member used the heart rate monitors as a tool to improve his marching ability.

“He used to dread marching, hated it because he was not in good cardiovascular shape,” Cook said. “In second semester he started wearing the heart rate monitor every day, and this kid was running up and down the hallways, running in the gym, on the bike, on the treadmill, doing whatever he needed to do to get his heart rate up. And the best thing he ever told me last spring was ... ‘I love marching.’”

As effective as the monitors have been, Cook said the best part is that they are tools toward the greater goal of the grant. 

“The heart monitors are fun. The gadgets are fun,” he said. “But really if we can train kids to look into what their fitness levels are and how exercise plays into their academics, that’s awesome.”

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