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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kids in poverty must overcome many obstacles

from the New York Times


Every Monday, Sycamore Valley Elementary in Danville challenges its students to run a “Smile Mile” together after school. Some parents even run with their children. Photos of the student joggers’ grinning faces are posted in the cafeteria. On a recent Monday afternoon, there were 41 smiling faces on the wall.

Students at Sycamore Valley have a lot to be happy about when it comes to their physical fitness. Fifth graders there got the best scores among all of their Bay Area peers on the 2011 statewide Physical Fitness Test.

Eighty-three percent of the fifth graders tested at Sycamore Valley aced the test by receiving healthy scores on all six different measurements — of aerobic capacity, abdominal strength, upper body strength, trunk strength, body composition and flexibility, most of them gauged through physical activity. One part of the Physical Fitness Test measures a child’s body composition, usually through body mass index, which is calculated using weight and height and is used to determine who is overweight.

Statewide, only 31 percent of public school students performed as well, according to the California Department of Education.

An analysis of state data by The Bay Citizen revealed a large variation in how fifth graders in Bay Area elementary schools perform on the test. The schools that performed the best have few students from low-income families, for reasons that experts say are not surprising. At Sycamore Valley Elementary, in an affluent suburban community, not a single student was eligible to receive a free or reduced-price lunch because of low family income last year, according to the state’s data.

Across the Bay, in San Francisco’s Mission district, none of the fifth graders at Cesar Chavez Elementary School received six healthy scores on the test. More than a quarter of them were found to “need improvement” on every measure of fitness.

At Cesar Chavez, where Spanish is the first language for many, more than 85 percent of the students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunches. In the school district that includes Cesar Chavez, Hispanic and black students are less likely to receive healthy scores than their Asian and white peers, the state data show.

Students at Sycamore Elementary have a dedicated “physical education specialist” on campus to help them train for the test. Those at Cesar Chavez do not.

“There is an inequity problem with the availability of quality physical education between schools of varying socioeconomic status,” said Drisha Leggitt, executive director of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, a nonprofit organization.

Robert O’Brien, Sycamore Valley’s physical education specialist, who favors shorts even when the temperature dips into the 40s, is fond of slogans like “exercise, not extra fries.” He leads students as young as 6 in sit-ups, jumping jacks, push-ups and running, striving to get all of them moving, while giving their classroom teachers time to prepare other lessons.

All 21 of the elementary schools in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, in which Sycamore Valley is located, have a physical education specialist like Mr. O’Brien.

“Having dedicated physical education teachers can make a big difference in students’ performance on the test,” said Linda Hooper, an education, research and evaluation consultant for the California Department of Education.

The San Francisco Unified School District has just 15 physical education specialists for all 76 of its elementary schools. Spread thin, they work with about half the schools at any time. According to Michelle Zapata, the physical education program administrator for the district, Cesar Chavez was among the 38 schools that had no physical education specialist on campus.

Advocates for child health warn that failing to teach children how to be active and healthy will have long-term consequences.

“It comes as no surprise whatsoever that such enormous inequities would be present,” said Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, a nonprofit organization. “It is grossly unjust and will have health and economic impacts on the state of California for generations to come.”

Sycamore Valley Elementary maintains a focus on health outside of physical education class time. Parents are not allowed to bring in cupcakes or other potentially fattening treats to celebrate birthdays. Instead, gifts of pencils or erasers to classmates are substituted.

Parents also contribute financially. Fund-raising pays for a twice-a-week movement class for kindergarteners that is not required by the state. In the fall, the school’s Parent Teacher Association gave Mr. O’Brien a $375 grant to buy new basketball hoops, and he also leads an after-school sports camp that helps raise money to buy sports equipment.

Each fall, the PTA holds a “fun run” fund-raiser, in which students are sponsored to run laps during school. It raised nearly $10,000 this year.

Even the school’s location supports fitness. It is next to a park, near a sweeping open space of rolling hills dotted with oaks. The park features a play structure, a basketball court, a bocce court and athletic fields, where Mr. O’Brien sometimes holds physical education lessons.

Many elementary school students in the suburbs also play sports outside school, including basketball and lacrosse.

Rebecca Adams, president of the Sycamore Valley Elementary PTA, said her children, who are in the first and third grades, participate in indoor soccer, swimming, gymnastics, baseball and softball, depending on the season.

Not all their activities are organized by adults. “A lot of kids play outside in their front yard,” said Ms. Adams, who lives less than a mile from the school. In-line skating, biking and tag are popular.

“My kids play outside all the time,” she said.

At Cesar Chavez Elementary School, physical education lessons, taught by classroom teachers, are held on a fenced-in blacktop lot below a huge, colorful mural of the school’s namesake. In the mural, Mr. Chavez, the late civil rights leader, is surrounded by a crowd of children as he carries a banner that reads “Help me take responsibility for my own life so I can be free at last.”

On the urban school’s blacktop, the basketball rims have no nets. “We don’t have a field or a park next door,” said Catalina Rico, the school’s principal.

Most of the students’ parents, many of whom are immigrants, cannot give extra money to help beef up its programs. Some families are homeless, and many others are struggling financially.

“A lot of our kids have been traumatized by poverty, violence, their parents being deported,” Ms. Rico said.

For those families, regular exercise in a safe place after school may be out of reach.

If parents are working two jobs, Ms. Rico said, “who is going to take them to the park?

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