February 27, 2009 in City

Athletes may be excused

Spokane schools consider proposal to exempt some students from fitness classes
By The Spokesman-Review

Starting next fall, student athletes in Spokane schools may not have to suit up for gym.

The board of directors for Spokane Public Schools is considering changing the rules to let middle and high school students in top physical condition bow out of physical education classes.

“This has been a huge source of frustration for families and students for a long time,” school board Director Sue Chapin said.

High school students are required to take at least three semesters of health and fitness, typically in the ninth and 10th grades. Besides exercise, the curriculum includes classroom-based, health-related subjects such as diet and sexeducation, topics school officials say athletes shouldn’t be exempt from. Students excused from the physical part of the curriculum probably would be tested in those areas.

“I’m not arguing that fitness and health isn’t important, but it seems a little redundant to me when we’ve got real trained student athletes who obviously understand nutrition,” Chapin said. “It would seem that there might be a different way to use their time when they are already demonstrating competency.”

The proposal for waivers would first go to a committee charged by the superintendent with developing procedures for nutrition and health curriculum. That group meets in April.

Currently, no waivers are given to students who get exercise somewhere else. Waivers have been granted to students for medical issues, school officials said.

According to state officials, while schools are directed to provide fitness and health education, the law allows students to be excused.

But “a waiver from PE doesn’t mean the credit is waived,” said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state education department. “In other words, if District X requires 21 credits, and one of them is PE, and I’m on the varsity tennis team … I’m still required to take 21 credits; I just don’t have to take PE.”

Several years ago, when the Legislature charged school districts to come up with a plan for health and fitness in the face of staggering child-obesity rates, Spokane responded with a new health and fitness curriculum.

Fitness classes require students to wear heart rate monitors, and students are graded on how long they remain in their target heart rate range during class.

But parents of student athletes say the fitness portion of the classes are designed for average students, who are far more sedentary than competitive athletes.

“It’s dangerous for students who are in that kind of (peak) physical condition to get their heart rate up to what is required for the class,” said Sarah Laudenbach, whose daughter is a senior at Ferris High School and a member of Spokane Area Swimming, swimming 10 to 12 hours a week outside of school. “Those kids need periods of rest and recovery.”

Laudenbach and other parents at Wednesday’s board meeting were pleased to hear the board will consider making the changes.

Dick Cullen, the athletic director for Mead High School, said his district provides no waivers for PE.

With increased graduation requirements in core subjects like math, reading and writing, students often struggle to fit in the extra courses they hope will boost their chances of getting into competitive colleges.

“They really don’t have time to fit PE into their schedule,” Cullen said.

Spokane students face the same issue, and both districts responded by providing zero-hour PE classes. Spokane went a step further, offering PE online at Spokane Virtual Learning as an alternative. Students can take health and fitness online, keeping track of their exercise in a journal, without ever having to set foot in the gymnasium.

“We want to strive to be a bit more flexible than we have perceived to be in the past,” said Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell. “It’s about equal access for all children.”

Reach Sara Leaming at (509) 459-5533 or saral@spokesman.com.

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