Elementary phys-ed out in Monessen

| Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 8:13 a.m.

Monessen elementary students will not have physical education classes this year, and some parents are questioning the curriculum change.

The district instead will provide a “Wellness Class,” combining structured physical activity and nutrition education for children in kindergarten through grade six.

A letter from Elementary Center Principal Bethanne Natali dated Aug. 8 was sent to students' parents and guardians notifying them of the change.

Two parents addressed the school board with concerns at Tuesday's agenda meeting, and others reiterated those feelings Thursday at a youth football practice on the elementary center campus.

“I don't know if I've ever heard of a school not offering gym class,” said Monica Gardner, who has a son entering third grade. “I think they need a physical education teacher. What can you say? It's Monessen.”

Ashley Oliver, who has two boys entering first grade, said she sees the switch as an “oxymoron” and is concerned the children won't get enough physical activity at recess, because the school property lacks playground equipment.

“They want to talk about not packing candy in their lunches and give us a list of what we can't bring in for Halloween, but then they're not going to provide gym class,” she said.

“They're elementary kids. If they sit in front of video games at home and they're not getting exercise in school, then they're not going to get exercise, period.”

Superintendent Linda Marcolini said she understands the concerns, particularly after working as a physical education teacher 16 years in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

However, Marcolini said elementary students will get plenty of exercise. Wellness program duties will be shared among three activities teachers, she said.

“They will have structured playtime in the gymnasium,” Marcolini said in a phone interview Thursday.

“I am pushing the wellness program, and the kids will be physically active.”

Marcolini said she discussed the situation at length with Natali and other principals.

“We don't have a crystal ball, but if the plan is implemented the right way, it should be equal to a physical education class, if not better,” Marcolini said.

Two long-tenured physical education teachers retired at the end of the last school year: Melcena Mendicino (elementary) and Kathy Stark (high school).

Echoing Natali's letter, Marcolini said an initial plan to share a physical education teacher between the middle and elementary schools two days a week fell through because of a scheduling conflict involving a new alternative education program.

“I understand the concerns more than ever because of obesity rates, and as a former physical education teacher, you're preaching to the choir,” Marcolini said. “We tried to do the next best thing within the confines we are currently dealing with.”

Unlike in middle school and high school, the state does not mandate physical education classes for elementary students.

Pennsylvania State Board of Education curriculum regulations requires: “Planned instruction aligned with academic standards in health and physical education be provided to every student every year in the primary (generally grades K-3) and intermediate (generally 4-6) programs.”

“Everybody involved in education is trying to get creative and think out of the box,” Marcolini said. “I've heard of school districts completely doing away with physical education at the elementary level, and I didn't want to see that happen.

“But when it comes to needs of kids and the district, and with the programs we have in place, we think we have a pretty sound plan.”

Marcolini confirmed Natali's statement that the district will seek state grants for security officers, so money now being used for that purpose can be put toward an additional physical education teacher for the 2014-2015 school year.

“I personally feel from what Beth is telling me, everything is going to work out with the state grant, but you never assume anything within the field of education,” Marcolini said.

“We could sit back next year and examine how the wellness program worked. If it doesn't, and I would highly doubt that outcome, we would consider reinstituting another physical education instructor.”

Both Gardner and Oliver said they'll wait to see how the new program works for their children.

“It doesn't sound like we really have a whole lot of choice,” Oliver said. “I know things are a lot different than when I was in school, and Monessen needs (a security presence). But if you can afford an armed officer, why you can't pay a gym teacher as well?”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

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