Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Austin schools flop on fitness tests

Teachers, parents, students working on problem, but statistics show Hispanic kids, ones from poorer families fare poorly.

By Molly Bloom
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Austin students from poor families tend to be less physically fit than students from wealthier families, an American-Statesman analysis of school district data shows. And Hispanic students tend to be less physically fit than students of other races.

A 2007 state law required all school districts to give students standardized fitness evaluations measuring height-weight proportionality, cardiovascular capacity, strength and flexibility. The first evaluations were given to students in the 2007-08 school year.

Austin's trend mirrors statewide results, and national studies that show higher rates of physical inactivity and obesity among Hispanic and poor adults and children put them at higher risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, joint and bone disease, and other health problems.

Regardless of fitness trends among various demographic groups in Austin, "what's really striking is the absolute level of poor fitness across the board in general," said Dr. Aliya Hussaini, a health program grant officer at the Dell Family Foundation, which has invested $85 million in childhood health issues in Texas, including support for health and fitness programs at 97 Travis County public elementary schools.

Austin students in general are in worse shape than those in all but three of the state's 10 largest districts. About 19 percent of all Austin students fall in the "healthy zone" on all of the fitness measures; below them on the list are students from the Fort Bend district, near Houston, with 15 percent; Houston, with 13 percent; and Dallas, with 11 percent.

Austin has a higher proportion of unhealthy students, as measured by the percentage of students falling in the "healthy zone" on all of the fitness tests, than all but eight of the 28 public school districts in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties for which fitness data are available.

In the Wimberley school district, none of the 1,010 students tested passed all of the tests, a surprising result considering the district's athletic championships in recent years and its relatively low proportion of students from low-income families.

Wimberley superintendent Dwain York said district staff members are investigating the low fitness scores.

A renewed push

The requirement to test students' physical fitness each year is one of the recent efforts by state legislators, including state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, to draw attention to and improve children's health through the public school system.

After regular physical education classes in Texas elementary schools were phased out in 1995, Texas schoolchildren were not required to participate in physical activity during the school day beyond taking physical education classes in high school.

In 2002, the state began requiring kindergartners and elementary school students to participate in daily physical activity for at least 135 minutes a week, which averages out to 27 minutes a day.

The 2007 law, sponsored by Nelson, also requires middle school students to have at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity in at least four semesters. Those requirements take effect this school year. Lawmakers have discussed physical activity requirements for high school students, who currently must have a minimum of 1.5 physical education credits to graduate.

State law now also requires elementary and middle schools to adopt comprehensive health plans addressing health education, physical fitness, nutrition and parental involvement.

The 2007-08 school year was the first time that all districts were required to give the fitness tests to all students in grades 3 to 12, so most parents won't know whether their schools' efforts to keep kids healthy are paying off until results come back from this school year's evaluations.

Though a growing body of research shows that physical fitness programs can improve student academic performance, several studies, including a 2007 study by the Austin school district, have found that family income has a bigger influence. The Austin study, which included fifth- and seventh-graders, found only a "modest relationship" between fitness and academic achievement.

This fall, the Texas Education Agency plans to release a statewide report examining the relationship between children's fitness levels and academic performance, attendance, discipline and other measures.

Texas tests, but ...

Texas is one of several states that require schools to give students standardized fitness tests and report the results to the state, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. Others include California, Connecticut, Delaware and West Virginia.

But Texas is the only state to require all but the youngest students to be tested: Most other states test only three or four grades. But unlike California and Connecticut, which report schools' fitness test results on their annual school report cards, the Texas Education Agency does not publish individual schools' results.

The $230 cost to each Texas district for the equipment and computer software used to conduct the fitness tests and report the results was covered by private donations raised by the Cooper Institute, the Dallas-based nonprofit that created the software.

In the 2007-08 school year, in part to comply with state law, the Austin school district launched a coordinated effort to improve student health.

The district revised its physical education curriculum and encouraged school staff members and administrators to take physical education as seriously as any other class.

Playing badminton in P.E. class in the spring convinced Isaac Rodriguez, then a fifth-grader at Hart Elementary School in Northeast Austin, that the game could be "kind of fun." But even more important to Isaac was the chance to get up and move around.

"I just like getting out of the classroom," he said.

Feeling the squeeze

In spite of significant school-by-school disparities in Austin students' fitness levels, the Austin school district has no plans to give schools with higher proportions of less healthy students more fitness-focused staff, equipment or professional training, Austin schools health coordinator Tracy Diggs Lunoff said.

Few other Central Texas districts plan to focus resources on less healthy schools, either.

The Lake Travis school district has added centers with nutrition information in every school's library and is introducing a health program this school year focusing on proper nutrition — again, in each school, rather than at specific schools or student groups.

Last week, Austin trustees approved a budget amendment of $60,000 to fund a health and wellness specialist position previously paid for through a grant. The specialist visits campuses to help implement fitness and health programs.

Though schools are responsible for students for at least 35 hours each week, countless factors that affect students' health — like what they eat at home, how much exercise they get, and how much tobacco use they're exposed to — are largely outside the district's control, Lunoff said.

At Maplewood Elementary School in East Austin, parent Wendy Morgan said she didn't think that her daughter and her classmates necessarily needed more physical education teachers or equipment.

However, Morgan said, it is unfair that Maplewood's outdoor facilities are in worse shape than those at Austin schools in wealthier neighborhoods: The basketball poles tilt and the track field is lumpy and lacks a water fountain.

About 46 percent of Maplewood students were at a healthy weight relative to their heights last year, compared with the district elementary school average of 70 percent.

More than 75 percent of the school's students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches; about 40 percent of students are Hispanic.

Azucena Garcia, principal of Sanchez Elementary School, said more resources at her campus would be welcome.

A few years ago, a grant allowed Garcia to hire an extra physical education teaching specialist who helped supervise students' daily physical activity time. The specialist also set up an after-school yoga program for students and a morning walking group for parents, among other programs.

And it helped. According to the state fitness report, 72 percent of Sanchez's students are at a healthy weight. More than 90 percent of the school's students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches; about 93 percent of students are Hispanic.

When the grant funding ended, the extra physical education teacher's position was cut, and some of the initiatives the specialist started fell by the wayside, Garcia said.

"I'm always looking for more opportunities," Garcia said. "As it is, it's up to interest and how much you're willing to do."

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