Originally published Nov. 22, 2019 in the Port Jervis Gazette/Times-Herald Record.

By Jessica Cohen

Better grades, alertness and more friends are some of the benefits of getting up early to go to Zero Hour P.E., say students at Anna S. Kuhl Elementary School.

They play basketball, soccer, badminton and other active games for an hour before classes start, wearing heart rate monitors for instant feedback about how much they challenge their bodies.

Jaidyn Epps, David White and Jacob Cross, age 10, show their IHT ZONE heart rate monitors during their Zero Hour PE class. Gazette photo by Jessica Cohen.

“I love the extra gym class,” said Robert Culleny, 11. “My grades are up 75 percent, and it helps me make friends. I come to every class.”

His teacher, Nancy Northrup, confirmed his academic improvement. “The kids were ambivalent about getting up earlier, but after the first day they were excited,” she said. “They love sports and competition.”

One of Robert’s new friends is Jaidyn Epps, 10. “We used to talk a little. Now we talk about everything,” said Culleny.

“I came because my mother wanted me to get better grades,” Jaidyn said. “I was a sloppy writer, but now I write better.”

Ergu Li, 11, said he started coming last week. “I don’t feel sleepy in class anymore,” he said. “And I like playing basketball and football with friends, and I make new friends.”

Robert, Jaidyn and Ergu were three of 15 fifth and sixth-grade students playing games in the ASK gym, supervised by physical education teachers, on Thursday morning. Students in those grades also come on Tuesdays, while third and fourth graders come on Monday and Wednesday, said Mike Rydell, Port Jervis School District superintendent. Hamilton Bicentennial Elementary also offers Zero Hour P.E.

“More sign up than we can accommodate. It’s first-come, first-serve,” Rydell said. “We’re looking at how we can expand the program, given space and personnel limits.”

At ASK, 60 students are now enrolled in Zero Hour P.E., while HBE has 40, and 30 students can come each morning, he said. The program started last year with Zero Hour classes two days a week, inspired by studies showing that exercise improves both academic performance and behavior. Brett Cancredi, ASK principal, and Jared Kahmar, HBE principal, developed the initial two-day program.

“It was clear early on that it was successful in attendance and academic metrics,” Rydell said.

Port Jervis School Superintendent Mike Rydell plays badminton with students during the Zero Hour PE class. Gazette photo by Jessica Cohen.

Erica Walentin, assistant principal and also a psychologist, is keeping track of the program’s effects, making use of what students say.

“They’re more awake, ready to learn, and more likely to be here,” she said. “We have a wide variety of students at different levels of achievement, and they do well.”

On the self-assessment, 86.4 percent of students reported they feel more ready to learn following Zero Hour P.E., and 77.3 percent reported they felt more awake, Rydell said.

“We have consistent enrollment. If they came the first day, they keep coming,” he said.

And they keep moving.

“The heart rate monitor helps kids buy into trying harder. They see how much their heart rate goes up,” Rydell said.

However, most of the Zero Hour participants are boys, at a 4:1 ratio, he says, and he offered no solution for that disparity. But exercise has also been integrated into classroom activities, with “brain breaks” for movement. Additionally, the kinesthetic learning lab mixes movement with learning, and physical education teachers record a different exercise set every Friday that they put online for teachers to use in class, Rydell said.

He and Cancredi say they practice what they teach. They get up between 4 and 5 a.m. to work out, going to a gym, or in Rydell’s case, swimming or running, even in the dark, as triathlon training.

“You have to make it a priority in the day,” Rydell said.

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