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Physical education carrying less weight in some W. Pa. school districts

Patrick Varine
| Sunday, April 8, 2018, 12:45 a.m.
Franklin Regional High School seniors Frank Simpkins and Mark Prucnal race for the ball during a gym class game of tchoukball, and indoor team sport developed in the 1970s, on Friday, April 6, 2018.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Franklin Regional High School seniors Frank Simpkins and Mark Prucnal race for the ball during a gym class game of tchoukball, and indoor team sport developed in the 1970s, on Friday, April 6, 2018.

Gym class isn't what it used to be, depending on where your child goes to school.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education provides physical-education benchmarks that school districts must meet, but it does not mandate a specific number of gym or health-and-wellness class credits for students.

How those benchmarks are met varies widely from one district to the next.

In the Norwin School District, students must have 1.5 physical education credits to graduate.

"We did recently change the number of required credits within the past couple of years," said Tim Kotch, Norwin's assistant superintendent of secondary education. "We went from two credits to 1.5."

The majority of Norwin's phys ed classes last one semester.

In the Hampton School District, students must attain two phys ed credits.

"They take a wellness class as freshmen, a physical education course of their choosing as sophomores and then Wellness II, usually as juniors," district spokeswoman Shari Berg said. "So technically, they would meet their requirements by the end of their junior year if they followed this schedule."

This type of model can help free up space in junior and senior schedules for additional classes more aligned to a student's chosen career path.

Franklin Regional Senior High School students also are required to take 1.5 credits of phys ed and a half-credit of wellness before graduation.

"Most of our kids in the high school will take phys ed in ninth and 10th grade, and then again in either their junior or senior year," Assistant Superintendent Mary Catherine Reljac said.

Franklin Regional offers a variety of phys ed classes such as fitness or weightlifting.

"When I was in high school, it was just 'gym class,' " Reljac said. "Because we have so many different version of classes, it can entice students to take additional phys ed credits."

At Ligonier Valley, freshmen and sophomores are required to take "Well Fit" classes each year.

"That's nine weeks of health and nine weeks of PE," high school Principal Tim Kantor said. "And then before they graduate, they have to do one additional credit of PE. Some students will take a half-credit each during their junior and senior years; some will do both in one year or another."

Ligonier Valley also offers phys ed for independent study.

"If we have someone who's a dancer or an athlete, they can fill out a log and have it verified by a coach or instructor," Kantor said. "And they can get an independent study credit that way."

Some districts still opt for the traditional route: At Shaler Area, students take four years of gym class.

A third (32 percent) of U.S. children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are overweight, according to the 2016 Shape of the Nation report and survey by the Society of Health and Physical Educators.

That organization and the American Heart Association encourage schools to have a comprehensive physical activity program to ensure students get at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity. The groups also call for states to adopt national physical education standards and require all school districts to have planned, sequential physical education curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Since health and phys ed are not measured via a statewide assessment in Pennsylvania, school districts must have a local assessment system in place and determine the proficient levels, according to Nicole Reigelman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

"Neither the PDE nor the state (education) board mandate a specific number of minutes or times per week that health and physical education is provided," Reigelman said. "Each school district has the authority to make the decision as to the most appropriate manner in which to schedule classes as long as it is within the boundaries of the Pennsylvania School Code and the Pennsylvania Code."

Quaker Valley School District officials are considering cutting the number of phys ed classes required for high school students to graduate from four to two starting in 2018-19.

Students there are required to take Health 1 and Health 2 while in high school. Under the proposal, the Health 1 course would be moved to the middle school.

With this, "the content topics would be similar but adapted to be developmentally appropriately for middle school," Assistant Superintendent Andrew Surloff said. The change, he said, "gives them a flexibility to explore their interests."

Quaker Valley school board members could vote this month on those changes.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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