Originally published July 13, 2019 in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review.
By Britta Arendt
Community members voice concerns about school district’s proposal to reduce elementary physical education time
The Grand Rapids community believes elementary students need daily physical education – that’s the message parents, teachers and other professionals stressed to the Independent School District (ISD) 318 School Board during a special workshop meeting on Monday, July 8.
The workshop was held to allow the public to relay thoughts on a proposed revised schedule for elementary students regarding special programming in preparation for the two new schools to be ready for the 2020-2021 school year.
Interim Superintendent Sean Martinson gave a recap of the proposed elementary specialists rotation schedule for media, music, and physical education – which decreases physical education from an everyday activity to a few days a week in order to create more time for media and music. According to the school district, the need to adjust scheduling for these programs is due to space and scheduling constraints, and allows for more efficient scheduling of those teachers.
Looking ahead, the schedule will also prepare for additional programming such as art, STEM and foreign languages when the new elementary schools are opened, benefiting all elementary students with a well-rounded education, explained Martinson.
Speaking as a parent of elementary children as well as an elementary principal and now superintendent, Martinson said, “We need to decide what we hope and wish to offer in District 318.”
School Board Chair Pat Medure explained that a board workshop on June 10 regarding scheduling changes created a lot of discussion throughout the community. To allow members of the public to voice their concerns, the July 8 special meeting was called.
“I absolutely love my job,” said ISD 318 elementary physical education teacher Karen Nash, who explained that she works to teach students to be “life-long active learners.”
Anne Bylkas has taught physical education in Grand Rapids at all levels, from elementary through high school.
“It insults me that recess and physical education are used interchangeably,” said Bylkas of the notion that children receive adequate activity during recess without structured physical education.
“Recess is a social time,” explained Bylkas, whereas she said physical education class is an opportunity for kids to learn life skills and movement techniques that help them focus in other classes throughout the day.
Several parents of elementary students told the board that their children don’t want to go to school if there is no “phy ed.”
Leah Friesen, a parent of elementary students as well as a member of the committee working to establish the programming for the new schools, said the root of the matter rests in the school district’s relationship and transparency with the community. She revealed that a survey sent to parents this spring about special programming showed the No. 1 priority was physical education.
Despite being an art instructor herself with a passion for the arts, Friesen explained, “as much as I want art to be a part of the schools, I will choose phy ed for my children every day of the week and I feel very strongly that way.”
Dana Butler, a trauma therapist specializing in working with children, spoke about the importance of providing physical education opportunities in ISD 318 schools.
“Our county has some of the highest trauma in our state,” said Butler, who explained that it’s been found that the best way to treat trauma is through physical activity. “You would be taking away what works. My clients are begging for their kids to continue to move.”
David Hack, a physical education professional who moved to Grand Rapids for his children to attend ISD 318 schools, reiterated the importance of physical activity in the schools. He told the board that physical educators have specific standards for bench marks they work to instill in their students. Without adequate time for classes, those educators may not be able to get their students to reach those benchmarks.
“Phy ed is not just game time, there is a lot of cognitive learning involved as well,” said Hack. “It’s not the phy ed people had 20-30 years ago.”
Hack explained that students are taught how to identify body parts and keep them healthy, how to use gym equipment properly, how to move so as not to get hurt and more – all skills that they can carry with them their whole lives.
Dr. Phil Imholte, a family physician at Grand Itasca Clinic and Hospital in Grand Rapids, spoke about the message a reduction in physical education would send to families.
“If we are going to set a trajectory for our entire community that does not stress exercise, I think it’s going to be very unfortunate for us in the long run,” said Dr. Imholte.
A kindergarten teacher at Southwest Elementary, Krista Sjostrand said the fact that the district offers free breakfast to students is a testament to the goal of helping kids be as healthy and prepared for learning as possible.
“My kids don’t come to school wondering what book Mrs. Sjostrand is going to read to them that day, they come wanting to know what game they’re going to play with Mrs. Nash and that’s awesome because they’re five!”
Friesen reapproached the board asking whether the special programming plan could be reconsidered, “to do something better for the students. We need to rethink the structure.”
In response to the community input, members of the board commented about the need to seriously consider the concerns.
“I echo the need to listen to the community,” said Board Director Malissa Bahr. “I am excited to have Sean (Martinson) at the helm because I think he has the ability to find solutions to this process – because that is what this is about, bad process. I think we need to take a step back.”
“I’m afraid we’re thinking too fast about rescheduling – with the upcoming school year coming upon us,” added Board Director Sue Zeige. “And we’re not in the new spaces yet.”
“Moving forward, we will bring this back,” said Martinson. “We have a lot of work to do in preparation of those new sites.”
After board discussion, it was determined that elementary principals will return to the school board with a recommendation for the coming year that acknowledges the input given by the community. The school board recommended that a clear process be instituted for future schedule changes. This process should include opportunities for input from teachers, parents, and community members. Superintendent Martinson noted that the solution may not please everyone, but that they will be listening to the community’s input and that it will be taken into consideration. The final decision will be shared with the community through the district website, Facebook, parent newsletter and staff newsletter. It was suggested to seek further public input for a broader perspective of the community.