For Atalaya Elementary School physical education teacher Kristy Filbin, a simple game of Frisbee golf underscores a major shortcoming in Santa Fe’s public schools.
After a little boy in one of Filbin’s PE classes bragged of his Frisbee golf proficiency, Filbin organized the class to play. But she found the boy out on the field crying: He didn’t know how to throw a Frisbee, he said, because he’d never done it before. He had only played Frisbee golf on his Wii video game system.
“Kids don’t know the rules to kickball—and I’m like, ‘Really? It’s kickball! How can you not know how to play kickball?’” Filbin says. “And very few kids can jump rope, which was really surprising to me.”
Though many Atalaya students participate in organized sports outside of school and have parents who make sure they eat healthy diets, something is missing. These kids, and those at three other Santa Fe elementary schools, get no more than one hour of PE per week—and it’s up to their parents to raise the money for it.
“Growing up, it was just part of the curriculum. PE was never an issue; it was paid for by the school or the district,” Margaret Barela, treasurer of Carlos Gilbert Elementary’s Parents Teachers Kids organization, says. “It’s really sad that a lot of the schools are weakened by the fact that we can’t have that.”
The vast majority of the money Carlos Gilbert PTK raises each year goes to pay $25,000-$30,000 in part-time salary and benefits to Filbin, whom the school shares with Atalaya.
Not all Santa Fe public schools must pay for their own PE programs, though. In 2007, EJ Martinez Elementary parent Lynn Komer and Carlos Gilbert PTK President Andie Manzanares were part of a cohort of parents who worked to get legislation passed appropriating state funds exclusively for elementary school PE. Under a new section added to the Public School Finance Act, individual schools would gradually become eligible for the funding, giving first priority to schools that served the most impoverished populations. But as those higher-priority schools began receiving state funding for PE, others were left out.
A planned five-year phase-in process was curtailed in 2010 when legislators made sweeping cuts in order to fill the state’s budget gap. At that time, eight of Santa Fe’s 19 public elementary schools lacked PE funding.
But this spring, the district stepped in and made changes, including staff reductions, in order to fund PE for four of those schools. Administrators hope to bring the last four (Carlos Gilbert, Atalaya, Acequia Madre Elementary and Wood Gormley Elementary) on during the next one to two school years, SFPS Deputy Superintendent Mel Morgan says. SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez says she wants to work with the state Legislature, in addition to continuing the district’s efforts, in order to fully fund PE for all Santa Fe elementary school students by the 2012-2013 school year.
“When you look at childhood obesity, the overall health and nutrition of our children, and the importance of regular physical activity, I really think the Legislature needs to refocus on that and continue the implementation process,” Gutierrez says.
Despite the progress that’s been made, it frustrates Komer that some of the schools’ parents still have to work so hard to make sure their kids have something as basic as PE—and that all their effort doesn’t pay for nearly enough of it.
“What you raise doesn’t even scratch the surface,” Komer says. Carlos Gilbert PTK raised about $48,000 total last year, which would pay for one full-time PE teacher’s salary and benefits if the school didn’t have any other funding needs.
The state Public Education Department doesn’t require that elementary school students spend a certain amount of time in PE. Instead, the state has a list of physical benchmarks children are supposed to meet at various stages. For instance, by fourth grade, kids are supposed to be able to “receive and send an object in a continuous motion”—ie play catch.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends elementary school kids get 2 hours of PE per week, citing research linking it with higher academic achievement. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11 out of 14 scientific studies show a correlation between increased grade school PE hours and academic improvement. Animal research points to increased levels of oxygen in the brain and a boost of concentration-promoting neurotransmitters as explanations for the positive effects of exercise on cognitive function.
“Learning good health and exercise is key,” Manzanares says. “It’s as important as all the math, social studies and science because, if the kids are healthy, they’re going to have a good education, and if they learn to live healthy and eat healthy and exercise regularly, ultimately that’s going to help them do better in school.”
But while the evidence favoring fit kids piles up and first lady Michelle Obama’s White House lawn Hula-Hooping spotlights the issue, New Mexico has far to go. A state Department of Health study finds that 22.6 percent of the state’s third-graders qualify as obese, compared to 19.5 percent nationwide. The emphasis on standardized test scores mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, combined with the state’s budget constraints, has made PE more of an “optional” part of education.
“The entire focus has been around math and reading, and I think we really have to look at the bigger picture and know that, if our children…have regular PE and fitness and they’re eating appropriately, I kind of think some test scores would magically go up,” Gutierrez says.
In its 2010 Shape of the Nation study, NASPE reports that 34 percent of nationwide schools surveyed include parent-teacher association-raised funds as part of their PE budget; public funding was the source of PE support for nearly three-quarters of the schools.
“PE is part of what every child should receive at school, and it’s unfortunate that it is not considered part of the core curriculum,” Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who was on the state House Appropriations and Finance Committee when the PE funding bill was passed, says. “Ultimately, I would hope we could have the funding to do these important, quote-unquote ‘extra’ programs.”
In the mean time, the money Santa Fe parents raise by holding carnivals and car washes and, ironically, enlisting kids’ help to sell chocolate bars doesn’t earn them anything “extra” for their kids, but rather helps meet a basic need.
“If we did not have to raise money for PE, we would still work as hard as we do to raise money,” Manzanares says, citing a complete drama program, science lab and more educational resources for teachers as part of the PTK wish list.
“It would open up a whole additional world for our kids.”