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Pinellas schools consider shift in elementary P.E. schedules

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More elementary schools in Pinellas County could be cutting back on physical education classes next school year to make sure students and teachers get more out of class time.

The school district emailed elementary school principals last week encouraging them to switch from daily half-hour physical education classes to 50-minute classes three times a week, citing increased teacher planning time as benefits.

The switch would allow for 50 minutes each day for teachers to plan, along with a 50-minute art class and 50-minute music class each week.

The state requires that elementary students receive 150 minutes a week of physical education, but schools can determine how to schedule that time. The school district’s recommended plan is similar to block scheduling in middle schools, where students’ days are divided into five longer periods instead of eight shorter ones.

A set teacher planning period would also provide a scheduled and consistent time for students who need extra tutoring in math and reading and enable teachers to work collaboratively on ideas, said district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra.

At least 28 of the school district’s 74 elementary schools have operated on the suggested schedule for years, Parra said. While the school district is strongly recommending the others change, schools still have the ultimate say on their daily schedules.

Ponce de Leon Elementary has operated on a block schedule for 10 years, and Principal Thea Saccasyn said it’s “without a doubt the best way to go.”

“Classroom teachers love it because they can meet with their teammates, and they always have someone to plan with; so kids get better instruction,” Saccasyn said. “It also saves instructional time because students are transitioning classes five times instead of seven, and there’s always five to 10 minutes for them to get drinks, go to the bathroom and travel.

“Now there’s more time for hands-on activities in classes instead of just lectures.”

Most art and music teachers already see students once a week, no matter what schedule their schools are on. Switching to block scheduling would ensure that’s the case at every school, according to district officials.

Some physical education teachers have objected to the change, saying it undermines the National Association for Sport and Physical Education’s guideline that students receive 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily.

“Daily physical activity helps them learn and be able to go back to the classroom and sit for three or four hours,” said Linda Fairman, a physical education teacher at Cross Bayou Elementary in Pinellas Park. “To change that model is a disservice and a detriment to our children. We have to put their health and safety first.”

Even with the proposed changes, Pinellas would still have the strongest physical education programs out of the neighboring five counties, Superintendent Michael Grego said. Hillsborough County offers physical education every day, but Hillsborough schools do not have assistants and often require classroom teachers to supervise classes. Pinellas physical education classes also have the smallest student-to-teacher ratio, he said.

The proposed change would have little effect on students, said Stephen Sanders, director of the University of South Florida’s School of Physical Education and Exercise Science.

“Elementary P.E. should be structured to help kids develop skills, so they’re not really deleting any skill time or advantage because they’ll still have the same amount of minutes,” Sanders said. “This may actually be a good thing because they’ll have more consecutive time to develop those basic motor skills, but then the question is always whether they’re getting enough activity outside of school.”

Schools need to find ways to keep kids moving on days they don’t have a physical education class, be it extra playground time at lunch or kick ball games, Saccasyn said. At Ponce De Leon, teachers have students follow a 30-minute exercise video called “Adventure to Fitness” on those days.

That, though, cuts into instructional time – yet another factor school leaders need to consider when trying balancing the many needs of their students.

“Is it the school’s job to teach students to be healthy and exercise every day, or is it the school’s job to ensure that happens?” Saccasyn said. “You have to weigh what’s more beneficial for students and what’s the true responsibility of the school.”

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