Originally published Feb. 8, 2018 in Bethesda Magazine.
BY BETHANY RODGERS
Matt Slatkin and Shannon Spencer, two physical education teachers at Newport Mill Middle School in Kensington, are heading to Annapolis to lobby for more student exercise.
Not for the middle-schoolers they teach, but for the students who haven’t yet arrived.
“We get them after elementary school. We would love to get them in better shape,” Spencer said.
To that end, Slatkin and Spencer are pushing for a statewide bill that would require Maryland school districts to set aside 150 minutes per week for elementary-age students to exercise. Recess could account for 60 minutes of this total, but physical education classes would have to make up the remaining 90 minutes.
Montgomery County’s public schools rank near the bottom statewide when it comes to physical education time for elementary-age students, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Data collected by the department in January show the county’s elementary school students get between 30 and 60 minutes of weekly physical education time. No other jurisdiction in the state had schools providing less than 40 minutes of P.E. per week.
But the Society of Health and Physical Educators recommends that elementary school children get at least 150 minutes of P.E. each week, Slatkin points out.
On Thursday, he and Spencer will be testifying in support of the legislation, sponsored by state Del. Jay Walker, a Democrat from Prince George’s County. The teachers became involved in the push after meeting Gov. Larry Hogan’s staff in November during a ceremony to unveil a new fitness center at Newport Mill. Since then, Slatkin said, he’s kept in touch with the governor’s staff and other state officials about the need for stronger P.E. standards in the state.
Walker said he first became interested in the subject of elementary-level P.E. after realizing how little exercise his daughter was getting at her public school in Prince George’s County.
“I did some research and saw that this is not just at my daughter’s school. … It was kind of ironic, because we know that childhood obesity has become a growing problem in America, but what have we done to combat childhood obesity in Maryland?” he said.
Walker has been sponsoring his bill for about eight years, but it has faltered in the face of opposition from school districts, including Montgomery County Public Schools.
A legislative analysis estimates MCPS might have to add 133 physical education teachers and increase annual spending by about $11.5 million to meet the bill’s requirements. If approved, the legislation would take effect Oct. 1, although a school system could ask for an extension through July 21, 2021.
Walker said he thinks in reality, expanding physical education would be less expensive than legislative analysts have estimated.
He understands the argument that local school districts should have control over their curriculum, but argues that the quality of public physical education is a statewide health issue.
“We used to have 45 minutes a day of P.E. in elementary school. Now they might get one day out of five a week? That’s just … really not acceptable and not healthy,” Walker said.
MCPS is submitting testimony against Walker’s bill, arguing the proposal would impose additional financial burden and scheduling challenges.
“Scheduling increased time for physical education into the instructional day is difficult during a period of fiscal constraints and the decision should be left up to local jurisdictions,” MCPS legislative aide Patricia Swanson wrote in prepared testimony. “Currently, the issue of increasing students’ physical activity during the school day is being addressed in Montgomery County Public Schools through newly developed elementary physical education curriculum and the opportunity for physical activity during recess.”
Elementary schools are advised to provide up to 50 minutes of P.E. instruction per week, and students have 30 minutes of recess each day to get more exercise, Swanson wrote.
Slatkin said he understands the difficulty of adjusting class schedules to squeeze in more physical education time, but believes “90 minutes is reasonable.” He and Spencer also say giving children more time to burn off energy could pay off in the classroom, pointing to research showing exercise improves brain function.
Moreover, Slatkin said, strengthening P.E. curriculums statewide could also help close the opportunity gap. Higher-income families are often better able to sign kids up for costly sports programs outside of school. Many other children are unable to participate in extracurricular sports and other forms of physical activity, he said.
“For some of them, they don’t have the opportunity to get outside and play,” Slatkin said. “So P.E. is the only structured physical activity they get.”
Also, in P.E. class, children learn about muscular strength, flexibility, teamwork and a multitude of other skills, Spencer said.
“All these things, they can use to be healthy individuals and live their healthiest and best lives,” she said.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.