by: Carole Archer, Physical Education Teacher Jennifer Griffin instructs Adrianne Gronnert’s first-grade class on how to do back flips. Students from left, Gisel Moron, Ida Fogel, Juan Garcia Flores and Kason Rondot on the mat.

Twenty-two minutes a day. Two and a half hours a week. That's all it takes to meet the U.S. Secretary of Education's physical activity recommendation, but many children aren't getting it.

In the Reynolds School District 'very few of the students are making the standards for physical fitness testing,' says Andrea Watson, district spokeswoman. 'There's definitely a push in the district to make physical education more appealing.'

A new three-year, $636,600 federal grant should help the school district in its quest.

Funded by the Department of Education's Carol M. White Physical Education Program, which strives to make physical education more appealing for all children, not just the athletic ones, the grant will help expand programs at four high-poverty schools in the Reynolds district.

Physical education teachers at Alder, Davis, Glenfair and Hartley Elementary schools will travel to a national physical education conference to learn about the latest teaching techniques, and all four schools will receive new technology to better monitor the progress of individual students.

Collaborating on the grant with Watson was Metropolitan Family Service, which operates Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) programs at three of the four elementary schools selected for this project.

Tricia Harding, a program manager with Metropolitan Family Service, said her agency selected Reynolds as a partner because the district already had a strong after-school program in place.

'From our perspective, all of our after-school programs could use a lot more resources for physical activity,' Harding says. 'We chose Reynolds because we have an existing partnership with them, and we knew we'd get the support we needed.'

Aside from teacher education and the purchase of new equipment like pedometers and software to track students' physical progress, Harding said the grant would provide resources for more physical activities during the two-hour after-school programs.

'We're competing with a video-game playing, television-watching culture, so we want to give kids a lot of options and find things that they will want to stay involved with,' Harding says.

Instead of organizing team sports after school, the grant will help SUN advisors bring a more individualized, eclectic mix of physically active programs into the schools.

'Things like yoga, hip-hop, martial arts. These are some of the things that kids have really responded to,' Harding says.

A friendlier gym class

To generations raised on bicycles and pick-up games of backyard tag, getting two-and-a-half hours of physical activity a week seems like a no-brainer.

But the reality is that children today don't have the same opportunities, says Jennifer Griffin, a Davis Elementary School physical education teacher.

'A lot of our kids live in apartment complexes. They don't have backyards. They don't get a lot of activity at home … and they only have PE class twice a week, sometimes once a week,' Griffin says. 'We want kids to be healthy, to be active, but having more PE classes takes more manpower and more money.'

Watson agrees that districts throughout Oregon have cut back on the number of physical education classes offered during the school day. In some districts, physical education has been cut completely.

'With so much of our focus on things like math and reading, there are fewer minutes left for other programs like PE,' Watson says.

But now that the Oregon Legislature has asked school districts to have a more in-depth wellness policy, some school leaders are revising their approach to physical education.

'We've been looking at the district's overall program,' Watson says of Reynolds. 'We really are trying to make physical education appealing.'

The days of overweight gym teachers barking orders from a corner are over, says Griffin in between bites of a shrimp burrito made for her in the Davis Elementary cafeteria.

'Old PE classes were geared toward the athletic kids,' Griffin says. 'Now we're trying to teach to everybody.'

Thirty-four-years-old, blond, and dressed in a trim workout outfit more suited to a yoga class in the Pearl District than a gym class in East County, Griffin is a 180-degree turn away from gym teachers of the not-so-distant past.

Instead of just telling her students what to do, Griffin shows them.

During a typical class, Griffin is often cartwheeling, jogging and pulling off some impressive back flips.

'Most of these kids are coming in without prior experience,' Griffin says. 'Sometimes, with the younger kids, it's like herding cats. I have to spend a lot of time teaching them life skills.'

By the time her charges get to second grade, most are comfortable with Griffin's 45-minute medley of cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training.

'We want this to be a fun class,' Griffin says. 'And, the reality is that for many of these kids, this may be the only time they're getting physical activity.'

And, as any teacher in Griffin's employee break room will tell you, children who don't exercise are a teacher's worst nightmare.

'We can't do anything with them if they haven't gotten their energy out. They have a really hard time focusing,' says Adrianne Gronnert, a first-grade teacher at Davis. 'Kids have to get a chance to play, to run around. They need that.'

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