After decades of overlooking a state mandate for middle schoolers, Anne Arundel County schools might soon require such pupils, like most of their counterparts throughout Maryland, to take physical education, Superintendent Carol S. Parham said yesterday.
She will recommend to the school board at its May 2 meeting that gym class be switched from an elective to a mandatory class starting in the fall of next year, allowing more time for exercise during the school day.
"At this point, with concern over the need for physical activity, I think it's something that deserves our serious consideration," Parham said.
The decision comes six weeks after The Sun reported that school officials were violating state law by failing to require gym class each year from kindergarten through eighth grade. State officials said regulations required yearly physical education and they knew of no district besides Anne Arundel that didn't mandate at least nine weeks of gym class for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
But for nearly 30 years Anne Arundel County has allowed middle school pupils to choose gym as one of a slate of electives. Officials said they believed they were following the rules. No one told them they were doing anything wrong then - or now. Despite several conversations and face-to-face discussions in recent weeks with state officials, including Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, the curriculum change is a voluntary one, Parham said.
"Whereas I believe our interpretation is correct, it's really not about interpretation," she said. "It's about trying to provide what's needed by our young people."
It is too late to require gym class for the next school year, Parham added.
Still, state officials are pleased that Anne Arundel's curriculum will match others in Maryland.
"Physical education is a requirement every year in middle school - that's pretty much our interpretation," assistant state superintendent Ron Peiffer said yesterday. "This seems to be more consistent with what other school districts are doing at this point."
Last week, school board President Paul G. Rudolph foreshadowed Parham's recommendation when he told a small crowd at the school board nominating convention: "We are most likely not in compliance. ... I anticipate that we will have to put that in as a mandatory subject."
Finding a way to squeeze another requisite course into a packed middle school day will be the challenge. Earlier this year, the school board voted to add an extra period of reading for next-year's sixth-graders. By 2002, that will expand to seventh-graders as well.
More reading means less time for subjects like chorus, band, art, foreign language and home economics. Adding physical education could mean even less time for those extras. No decision has been made on how much physical education would be required each year or how the other electives would be handled, said Jane W. Beckett, a school district spokeswoman. It's too early to tell if the addition would mean more teachers will be needed.
"We're prisoners of time," Parham said. "We've been asked to do more and more in the confines of the same hours of the school day."
Peiffer predicts a middle school with a different look - perhaps one with a longer day or with more periods or with more integrated courses - to reflect the academic and social demands on today's middle school pupils.
Carolyn Horan, mother of a Severna Park Middle School eighth-grader, favors adding physical education to the school day. Her son, Noah, wanted to take gym this year, but the school couldn't fit it into his schedule. She rattles off statistics about an increasingly sedentary - and inactive - population of adolescents, with more cases of diabetes, increasing obesity in teens and the earlier onset of what were once adult diseases.
Her son has "gone a whole year without any physical education at all, which is very frustrating to me," she said.
But Horan worries about what more physical education classes mean to everything else, including art, which was once required in sixth grade and will soon become an elective.
The state regulations governing art classes are worded exactly the same way as those governing physical education - meaning they should be required, too, she said.
"Does this push the other electives even further out of the picture?" she asked.