Originally published Jan. 15, 2019 in the Redwood City Climate Online.

By Bill Shilstone

Redwood City may once have been considered the physical fitness capital of the United States, considering the nationally recognized program developed by Frank Griffin at Sequoia High School.

Griffin, who taught physical education at Sequoia from 1920-1960, developed a color-coded, incentive-based ability grouping system, then added an obstacle course that would have challenged Tarzan with its climbing and swinging apparatus in the many campus trees. Physical education teachers came from near and far to study, then copy. The Army, Navy and Marines asked him to design programs to whip their recruits into shape for World War II.

community supportShortly after Griffin retired, a Redwood City Tribune editorial headed “This Area Leads in Physical Fitness” was written in response to President John Kennedy’s worry about an alarming statistic: one-fourth of the nation’s schoolchildren could not pass a simple fitness test. Not so in south San Mateo County schools, which the editorial writer noted had been fitness leaders for years.  As evidence, 30 Sequoia graduates became athletic directors in the service, and an average Marine fitness test score of 305 for Carlmont High School seniors outclassed the 205 average for Marine recruits before basic training.

But the obstacle course is gone, and the statistic that bothered Kennedy proved a troubling harbinger. In 2005, the American Heart Association reported that “If childhood obesity continues to increase, it could … cause our current generation of children to become the first in American history to live shorter lives than their parents.”

Interviews with coaches, educators, health care providers and parents confirm that Redwood City youth are no longer in very good shape when it comes to fitness, neither the push-ups kind nor the healthy eating kind. On the other hand, the battle not only has been joined by myriad community agencies, there are actually signs of recovery. Several possible causes of failed fitness are identified, including some barriers to recovered fitness, as well as a host of attack strategies.

“Families don’t get involved with fitness,” Sgt. 1st Class Renzo “Alex” Alzamora said. “There’s chips and soda all over the place. In New York, you walk; here kids are picked up and dropped off.  They are home in front of a TV or computer, not outside exercising and building social skills. There is a huge disconnect between generations. Not everyone wants to be a doctor or computer scientist, but that’s the direction kids are being pushed. Too many are stressed and depressed.”

Nutrition habits are somewhat culture related, Alzamora, a native of Peru, said. “But it’s not just an isolated thing, we see it at all economic levels.” He was overweight when he enlisted 14 years ago but lost 30 pounds in boot camp and hasn’t had a problem since.

“We’ve been invited to help by some schools, particularly Sequoia, but often we’re seen as being interested only in recruiting, not helping the recruits,” Alzamora continued. “We’re offering job training, college credit, a chance for retirement benefits. That message doesn’t always get through, and that means eliminating an option for young people. I think the answer is better physical fitness education for students and parents.”

The state Department of Education requires schools to provide physical education but leaves it to the local districts to figure out how to do it. There is no state or federal funding for physical education. Low-wealth districts such as Redwood City have tended to spend shrinking dollars on academics rather than nurses and elementary school PE teachers.

In 2005, the state board adopted a “standards-based reform of physical education instruction.” The result has been a new look in PE classes, with drills and calisthenics being replaced by activities that promote fitness and are fun at the same time.

A sixth-grader may not be able to score a touchdown in an 11 on 11 football scrimmage, but he can keep his heart rate in the healthy zone by keeping a Hula Hoop twirling as long as possible. She might not be able to do 50 sit-ups, but she might start with zero, keep a record, and work up to 20 by the end of the year. The drill instructor approach made those who couldn’t cut it hate PE and not participate, today’s coaches agree. Tarzan might have had trouble with Griffin’s famous obstacle course, but just about anybody can work up a sweat on the Kennedy gym’s rock-climbing wall.

“I can’t imagine that obstacle course getting approved today, because of the liability issue,” said Rob Poulos, physical education department chairman and varsity football coach at Sequoia High School. “The physical fitness testing style has changed. The standards give us a clear and unified regimen of cardio-fitness activity.”

The training of a physical education teacher also has shifted, Poulos said. “Rather than sports specialization, it’s sciences such as kinesiology and physiology.”

There are more than 600 individual standards for grades K-12 in the state directives. Examples: “Bounce a ball continually (kindergarten); describe and record changes in heart rate (third grade); hang by hands with hips and knees at a 90-degree angle (fourth grade); list long-term benefits of regular physical education (sixth grade); abide by the decisions of the officials (eighth grade); develop a fitness plan for a family member (ninth grade).

In addition to laying out a new approach to PE instruction, the state board called on “families, businesses and community partners” to help out, and in Redwood City they have done just that.

The Sequoia Healthcare District. The Peninsula Community Center. The Police Activities League. The Sheriff’s Activities League. The Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District. 1 Grain to 1,000 Grains. The Sequoia YMCA. The Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula. Redwood City Parks and Rec. Latino Outdoors. My Digital TAT2. The list goes on.

The biggest player is the health care district, which has contributed millions of dollars to the child fitness cause.

District Chief Executive Officer Pamela Kurtzman was directing its Heart Safe Program in 2005 when the death of a student in a PE class brought her to the Kennedy Middle School campus in Redwood City.

“That sparked a discussion with several school principals who told me the problem is more than fitness,” she said. “They told of kids that come hungry, some with no soles on their shoes. Many families have to choose between rent and food. Some move in together. That leads to unhealthy conditions. A family might get food from Second Harvest but not have a way to cook it.

“I told the boss we need to do more in our schools. We realized they were underfunded. They were cutting physical education and nurses because the mandate was academics.”

The result was the establishment in 2010 of the Healthy Schools Initiative to provide school-based health and fitness programs in south San Mateo County in partnership with some 15 nonprofit organizations. The property-tax-funded district this year has budgeted $4.3 million of its $15.3 million total to the Healthy Schools Initiative. Close to $2 million goes to Redwood City elementary schools, including $283,160 for nursing services and $122,647 for the wellness director the program provides for each school district. Among their duties is helping find food vendors that offer healthy choices for school meal service.

Anchoring the Healthy Schools Initiative in Redwood City is the PE+ program run by the Peninsula Community Center and funded by the healthcare district ($816,000) with contributions from the school district and individual schools. PCC sends 42 coaches to all 12 Redwood City elementary schools to direct fitness programs for 5,300 students in grades kindergarten through five.

The coaches drill and test the students in mile run, push-ups, curl-ups (sit-ups) and stretch and reach, all standards set by the state education department, and conduct units on activities such as handball and dance. The classes allow the district to meet the state requirement of 200 minutes of PE every 10 days for grades 1-5.

The “plus” of the program comes in the weekly Health Huddle at the end of each class, where students discuss health tips designed to stick with them for life. Wash hands. Brush teeth. Water, not soda. Eat from all five food groups. Eat the whole piece of fruit. Be active.

All the elementary schools in the district have fitness-building programs that supplement PE+. At Adelante, Danny Giray of the San Carlos Children’s Theater keeps the students moving with dance rehearsals leading to a year-end, full-stage production at Sequoia or McKinley.

Deanna Kainz, an outdoor education specialist who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, teaches nutrition classes and conducts an after-school garden club, where students gamely try exotic fruits and vegetables such as pineapple guava, persimmon and purple carrots.

Many Adelante science fair projects also have nutrition-flavored projects. Charlie Douglas’ look at unsaturated fats grew out of a family discussion about cookies. He and his brother and sister now snack on roasted seaweed, edamame, trail mix and other healthy choices rather than chips and brownies. Charlie has since graduated to Kennedy Middle School, where he is working on lowering his time in the mile run.

Unlike the elementary schools, PE teachers at middle schools and high schools must be certificated, and the number of required minutes increases to 400 in a 10-day period. Theirs are the programs that focus on the “new” standards-based, fun-based PE.

An early practitioner was Kennedy teacher Bret Baird, a 30-year veteran of PE instruction in Redwood City schools who abandoned the old methods and substituted scooter boarding, rock climbing walls, gunnysack races and Hula Hoops.

“I trick them into fitness,” he said. “They run non-stop, but they’re having fun. Under the old system, if you weren’t a good athlete, you didn’t like PE.”

Baird is the last of the facilitators of a $209,000 federal grant the Redwood City district received in 2004 to improve fitness in the district’s three middle schools.  It paid for stationary bikes, skate equipment and heart-rate monitors.

Baird and the rest of the grant team visited Naperville, Illinois, where Madison Junior High “was testing off the charts,” he said.

“It was featured in the ‘Super Size Me’ movie. The key was heart-rate monitoring. You determine your target heart rate based on a height/weight formula (Body Mass Index). You’re graded on how many minutes you spend in your target rate. Keep the kids moving is the goal. I’ve tried to model my program on what we learned. I have 90 activities, all designed for fun and fitness.”

The standards allow the students to self-motivate by charting their own progress, Baird said.

“It’s great to see my students go from zero push-ups to 10-20 by the end of the year. My message to them: Try to be the best version of you that you can be, and the healthiest.”

Baird’s take on factors that work against kids achieving good fitness: less walking and biking as open enrollment replaces neighborhood schools, and “many latchkey kids with working parents who make them stay home after school for safety or babysitting. They watch TV and eat poorly. It’s not natural. They’re growing. They need to be active. They like to be active.”

A factor working in favor of fitness is the advent of girls’ athletics after the 1972 Title IX civil rights law mandating equal opportunity for girls and women in high school and college.  With women taking combat roles in the military and female participation in sports teams about equal to males at Sequoia,  the era of “throws like a girl” is long over.

At the next level up the educational ladder, Sequoia High has a stronger dollar support to offer choice, innovation and flexibility. Poulos said the school’s education foundation bought floating belts (just what it sounds like) so non-swimmers could learn water polo skills.

In the elementary district, Redwood City Education Foundation Executive Director Kathleen Harris is hitting up donors for support for the PE+ program. She said she is in negotiation with several businesses and foundations, including the San Jose Sharks.

The PE standards can’t be covered 100 percent, Poulos said, “but we lay out a basic curriculum with flexibility to tailor programs to teachers’ particular skills. We don’t have field hockey, but we have a very strong dance program. Men’s volleyball will be added in spring. The program has to be tailored to the facility – we’re field poor and gym rich (the campus has three). We offer as many choices as we can and hope to expose students to activities they’ll come back to in later years.”

Standards-based PE is one attempt at a solution. Another is the focus on healthy food offerings at schools. “We used to have the most profitable soda dispensing machine in the county,” Baird said. “It’s gone now.” Other solutions are offered by the many community agencies and nonprofits that have gotten involved.

Sequoia’s Poulos said he sees plusses and minuses in progress toward healthier, more fit young people. “There definitely is increased awareness of healthy food choices,” he said. “Fitness is more a roller-coaster. The rush for better English and math scores has had a definite negative impact. The high school PE requirement has shrunk from four years, to three years, to two.”

That’s not exactly in keeping with the state Board of Education’s “call to action” on physical fitness. The ball, perhaps, is in the community’s court.

This story was published in the January print edition of Climate Magazine.

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