Pupils allowed to skip gym in middle school

County calls it elective, but state say it's required

Officials to investigate

Anne Arundel

March 01, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Gym class in middle school has been a Maryland mandate for years, but Anne Arundel County hasn't required it for nearly 30 years. State officials want to know why.

Other Baltimore-area school districts and state officials say the law calls for gym class in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

But Anne Arundel County considers physical education one of a list of electives including band and foreign language. And starting next year, the county's sixth-graders are expected to spend even less time playing sports during the school day to make room for more reading instruction.

After being alerted by The Sun to the school district's practice, state and local officials said they would meet on the topic this week to investigate. The requirement is there, state officials said, to foster lifelong health in pupils.

"We expect students to take it," said Elizabeth G. Gallun, specialist in comprehensive health and physical education for the Maryland State Department of Education. If they don't, "That's against the law," she said.

Anne Arundel County officials said they don't read the law that way, saying a regulation instructing school systems to "provide an instructional program" in physical education means they must offer the course but are under no obligation to enroll every middle school child. That's how the school district has operated since 1973.

"That's the way we've done business in Anne Arundel County," said Kenneth P. Lawson, associate superintendent for instruction and student services. "We've made no effort to hide that."

B. Darren Burns, the system's staff attorney, said, "You would think someone would have said we're doing it wrong."

Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Anne Arundel County school board to add an extra period of reading for middle schoolers - starting with next year's sixth-graders - means fewer electives and, consequently, fewer pupils choosing to take what the state calls a required gym class.

Anne Arundel County is mirroring a national trend toward less physical activity during and after school for young people. At one time, most schools in the nation had daily gym class through eighth grade.

Now, the time devoted to such things as volleyball, fencing and square dancing has been eroding, being replaced in the busy school day with more academic classes or other electives. State curriculum leaders plan, when they meet next month, to address how best to squeeze more into 6 1/2 hours.

"The day's not long enough, and physical education has taken the hit," said Don Disney, coordinator for physical education and athletics in Howard County, where in the past 20 years, middle school gym class has gone from a daily exercise to one school quarter a year. "With the pressure on the assessments and all the testing and the accountability - the MSPAP - it's pretty much put the pressure on principals to have the kids prepare for it.

"At the same time, the surgeon general has come out and said obesity is an epidemic for kids, and activity is at an all-time low. What sense does it make to [put all the focus on] 2 pounds of gray matter if your body is going to collapse prematurely?"

Howard and other counties say they require gym because it is the law. "If it weren't a state requirement ... it could really fade away," Disney said.

Baltimore County wants its middle school pupils to have daily physical education, but it doesn't always happen. Less than a decade ago, that was the norm, said Sally Nazelrod, the county schools' supervisor of physical education. Now, many schools offer it two or three times a week.

In the Baltimore schools, it's a site-based decision, but most schools offer a semester's worth.

"I don't know of any system that is offering less than one quarter," Gallun said, before being told by a Sun reporter that Anne Arundel has no physical education requirement in middle school.

Each of Maryland's 24 districts needs to read the law the same way, said Neil Greenberger, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. Otherwise, it could have serious ramifications for physical education courses statewide, he said.

"Right now, we have a conflict of what the Anne Arundel County situation is," he said. "There has never been a major issue about it or any complaints about it."

Terra Ziporyn Snider, a co-author of several health-related books, has three children who attend schools in Severna Park. She said she was surprised and disappointed to find when her family moved to the area last August that physical education was not required.

"My own children were thrilled," she said. But, she said, "it's one of those things they should have. They can very easily go through their middle school with no gym whatsoever. It flies in the face of all research and all public health concerns."

According to Anne Arundel County school statistics, during the 1998-1999 school year, the most recent data available, 80 percent of sixth- and eighth-graders chose the gym elective, while 74 percent of seventh-graders did.

At Crofton Middle School, those pupils who opt to take physical education now get one semester of it; next year, the sixth-graders would get just one quarter, said Principal Richard Berzinksi.

The state counts on each district's officials to explain whether they are in compliance with the law. Meanwhile, Greenberger said, no one at the state is accusing the county of intentionally violating it.

"We thought it was being followed one way," he said. "We don't check on what everyone does."

Anne Arundel County's Lawson defends the way the school district has run its physical education program. "I like it when kids take it," he said. "[But] unlike some of the other courses we offer, it's available in other forms beyond the regular school day."

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