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These kids are climbin' the walls
Kinesology professor Debbie Rhea
teamed up with Fort Worth schools
to rethink how P.E. classes should be taught for the 21st century.
By Rick Waters '95
It's second period at McLean Middle School and two dozen or so seventh-grade girls have lined up for their new favorite P.E. activity -- the scarf relay race.
The game is simple: Three teams each send one representative with a handkerchief in each pocket to steal as many hankies from the other players. Lose both and a player is out and replaced by a teammate. The team with the most scarves at the end wins.
But there's a twist. This game is played about two feet off the ground -- as players must chase down opponents and avoid getting caught while navigating on the school's new 8-foot tall climbing wall.
Installed over the summer, the wall is the students' favorite part of physical education these days, maybe even of school itself. In fact, during a recent all-grade open house, the wall was the featured attraction.
The wall -- and 25 more just like it in Fort Worth's other middle schools -- is part of a $350,000 federal physical education program grant, co-authored by TCU kinesiology professor Debbie Rhea and Georgi Roberts, Fort Worth school district's physical education coordinator.
The funds also purchased step aerobic benches, hand weights and resistance bands for each school, and will go toward developing new activities, such as Frisbee golf and challenge courses. It also helped pay for workshops to retrain teachers in the new district-wide physical education curriculum Rhea created.
Welcome to P.E. in the 21st century.
It couldn't have come at a better time for Fort Worth public school children. Though Fort Worth the third-largest urban district in Texas and ninth-fastest growing in the nation, it lacked a district-wide P.E. curriculum until 2001.
"Of 26 middle schools, over half were struggling to do activities with limited equipment and a large percentage of students weren't dressing out," Rhea said. "Balls were flat. Lots of kids were standing around most of the period. The schools couldn't meet state standards because they didn't have the equipment or a curriculum that worked."
Fort Worth isn't alone. Many school districts have traditionally emphasized team sport activities like basketball, volleyball or kickball that tend to leave the less physically gifted feeling awkward and unsure.
"Research has shown that lifetime recreation activities such as group games and challenge activities provide a more desired level of stimulation for students and encourage physical activity outside of a school setting," Rhea said.
"We are starting to see high cholesterol, high blood pressure and overweight tendencies in high schoolers," she said. "If we can make an impact on P.E. classes when students are young, we're going to cut these risks in half and get away from the mindset that it is okay to be sedentary."
The middle school grant is actually the second of three. Rhea started at the elementary school level with a $448,000 grant. Although a new state law in 2002 had mandated at least 30 minutes of structured P.E. a day for all elementary students, Rhea discovered that many kindergarten through second-grade students did not have P.E., only a free-for-all recess on the playground.
"The problem was that little kids aren't picking up basic skills -- throwing, catching, skipping, jumping -- at that age, and later on when they are older, we see a lack of motor skill ability and a loss of self-esteem and confidence, " she said.
Working with Roberts, Rhea implemented a multi-activity curriculum that associated physical fitness with a variety of activities and provided equipment and workshops to guide teachers.
"There were plenty of hurdles and questions, especially with the climbing walls in the middle schools," Roberts recalled. "Safety was an obvious one, as was delivery and set-up. But each one of the walls was separately measured and put in. And once the teachers saw the possibilities they immediately were on board."
Results came fast. Some of the new activities dictated smaller classes, but the percentage of time students were moving doubled. Overall participation and time spent in vigorous activity increased. Time spent dressing for class and disciplinary problems decreased.
"Before, we had 10 or 20 people in a group and one ball," Roberts said. "Now we have three or four to a group and a ball for each student or pair."
Assessment reports show that self-esteem and confidence have significantly for middle school students, and P.E. class was deemed more fun and made them feel less self-conscious, Rhea said.
"And every one of them -- boys and girls -- were stronger," she said.
Now with the third grant totalling $873,000 over three years, Rhea is finalizing a curriculum for Fort Worth high schools. It will start with writing and implementing an introduction course to personal fitness that is heavy on lifetime physical activity and nutrition.
The physical component includes creating health club-quality fitness rooms with treadmills, elliptical bikes and heart rate and body fat monitors. The course will even incorporate field trips to the supermarket where students will read food labels and learn better food choices.
The grant will pay for training teachers for a semester-long outdoor challenge curriculum that emphasizes team-building and problem-solving through activities such as camping, orienteering and hiking.
"I want these students to be active adults and avoid the health problems we see in the elderly today," Rhea said. "They can do it. They have to be exposed to positive experiences, introduced to new ways of being active and have the equipment to try it."
Soon they will.
Contact Debbie Rhea email@example.com
Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.