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Alec Appelbaum

Alec Appelbaum

writes about urban design and policy for the New York Times and others, focusing on ways cities can become healthier. He is a parent at PS126 in Manhattan and enjoys exercising on his own and with his family.

Out2Play has built 118 playgrounds (some with dedicated athletic facilities, all with student input) at schools around town since 2005. (Photo courtesy of Out2Play)

With layoffs looming, it'd be nice to believe that the hardworking teachers we respect will make do on shoestring budgets- like heroes in a sports movie. But if we examine the Department of Education's effort to promote fitness, we may conclude that heroic efforts and good intentions without athletic space may not be enough.

Like principals eking out 2011-2012 budgets, the DOE's fitness team began its reform by trying to get as much as possible out of available staff. Lori Rose Benson, the director of DOE's Office of School Wellness Programs, told me last year that one in four elementary schools had no PE teacher when she arrived in 2003. Now that's down to less than one in ten, she says, because "there are folks within our system talking to principals about what's realistic in scheduling." Benson also invested in professional development for PE teachers. But there's little platform for these teachers. According to the Women's City Club of New York,  one in five local high-schoolers polled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009 reported that they had no gym class in an average week.

Which raises the question: can you teach physical education without a properly designed classroom? The answer is: yes, you can- but it's awfully hard to measure what students are getting out of it.

The practice of aerobic training in tiny spaces, is legitimate. "A lot of our schools are in settings where you have to use a classroom to do activity, so we created a session called No Gym, No Problem which is about getting at lifetime fitness activities," Benson told me. The coursebook for No Gym, No Problem mentions things like "virtual soccer" or "dancing through the decades" that aim to make physical expression feel natural and measurable in any tight space.

The DOE also offers Move-to-Improve and Spark, other kinetics-where-you-least-expect-'em modules, to teachers in 200 elementary schools.

"A lot of it is about creating an environment where physical activity is encouraged," Benson said.

But too many students live in environments where physical activity is zilch, so Benson and her team spend a lot of time trying to forge partnerships with third parties who offer outlets outside of the school building.  Andrea Wenner started her nonprofit playground development company, Out2Play, in part from a conviction that "running relay races in the halls" did not provide the sense of strategy, release and efficacy kids can get in more devoted athletic settings.

Is it fair to worry about PE when some schools are facing near-total decimation? It is if we're interested in training citizens, not just test-takers. Unlike science or music or art, which some schools manage to teach without dedicated classrooms, athleticism involves a coordination of the whole body with a purpose. And it often requires a student to recognize her constantly shifting role as part of a team.

And any subject that teaches our youngsters to tough it out together deserves all the space it can get.

Thursday, 05 May 2011 06:36

Fitness Focus: G+T- K PE = not for me

The degrees of my good luck are incalculable, in Sinagpore Math or Everyday Math or anything else. I have good health, a wonderful family, and a child who qualified, based on her pre-K test, for a range of "gifted and talented" programs. This lucky circumstance plays out in kooky paths, though, as any parent with similar good fortune can understand. There isn't room for all at the most overcrowded schools, and the Department of Education essentially runs a lottery for the available slots.

Nobody would doubt that Charlie and Lola are gifted and talented! (Courtesy of Disney)

Parents can feel a little powerless. Nobody knows exactly where our child may end up being placed, so we visit a range of schools in our district (or beyond).How can we make up our minds about which schools to rank top - or bottom - on the list?

I came up with my own arbitrary rule. If the school offers no physical education classes for kindergartners, I wish it success but my wife and I will rank it low. I have three reasons for this rule. All aid me in strategy.

First, phys ed provides an alternate outlet for the skills that qualified kids for G&T programs.  Physical education imparts the value of collaboration, patience, isolation and second-order thinking - and it teaches that results can vary from game to game and day to day. Kids who are gifted and talented at basketball may need to slow down to learn English grammar- and vice versa. Both journeys inculcate crucial self-confidence. Put another way: if my kid can learn Mandarin, she can learn isometrics. And if you think she doesn't need to learn both, you have a different theory than I do about what makes a community of learners.

Second, phys ed can cut across socioeconomic lines. The son of a pair of Columbia astrophysicists and the girl who'll be the first in her family to go to college need each other to get the ball down the court. Phys ed is full of moments that prove how cooperation leads to success for all.

Third, phys ed provides a welcome relief from academic pressure. One principal on a G&T tour this week described her students as "suffering from perfectionism." Stipulate for a second that perfectionism is an illness. Can't a little physical release provide at least a topical cure?  It worked for Bill Bradley and Dave Bing. Story time is engrossing: art is expressive; music transcends, but phys ed delivers a vital message to these young achievers:  You can always play again and do better. And the score matters a lot less than what you learned about how to play.

It's a message some anxious parents might welcome in the next couple of weeks. Email me here if you're up for a post-application pickup game!

Chancellor Walcott cooks waffles at PS 10 in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of

Like Dennis Walcott, I have made good on a promise to cook waffles in a public school.  And like Walcott, I'm pretty fit. In fact, I also volunteered to teach a little yoga session in the same pre-K classroom where I made waffles. (I focused on "poses you can sneak in while standing in line.") But that's about as much as I can realistically do to give parents more leverage in improving their schools' phys-ed. Walcott can do a lot more.

Parent volunteers should be able to supplement, and host phys-ed events in any school. Parent involvement has busted through bureaucracy in other areas so fitness shouldn't be a dead zone. Consider: parents run the splashy fundraisers that, offering Lady Gaga tickets and all, have given crucial boosts to East Village standouts like PS 363.  The agency where my wife works, Cypress Hills LDC, helped parents and others win a new school building to relieve overcrowding.

So why isn't there a system for using volunteers to supplement the many gaps in phys-ed?

The volunteer model is well-established, but it's not systematic. I once wrote in New York magazine about a patent lawyer who taught track and field at a Catholic school in his spare time; and on our last visit to PS 29 in Brooklyn, Insideschools met a father who worked nights and coached basketball during the school's lunch period. Probably every district has such dedicated volunteers, but we can't rely solely on Type-A parents to volunteer during the school day.

It's hard to find a procedure for sustaining parent-led fitness throughout the school year.  Parents are busy -- even I, with my flexible hours, couldn't  return for another yoga class- -and the logistics of a parent-volunteer network are perhaps the last thing the slow-to-digitize paperwork system at DOE can handle.

As a start, why not keep it focused? A school could give parents the chance to run a sports-choice fair early in the year - maybe on one of the half-days that have parents scrambling for childcare anyway.  Or what about combining parent-teacher conferences with parent-student games? A quick relay race could be a real icebreaker.

Parents have a lot of creativity, a lot of authority, and a lot of reasons to get fit themselves. If the DOE wants to remove some of the shackles keeping students unfit, it should beat a path for more parent volunteering.

That path, like everything else, should supplement gym class rather than substituting for it. For too many kids and parents, school is too often a breathless rush between long periods of sitting still. More entry points for more parents can let in a lot more air.

What makes hearts race in your school? Tell us about a volunteer with impact and share your ideas for success.

A Lehman HS student shows off what he's learned in class. (photo courtesy of The Daily News)

Teachers are taking it on the chin these days. From Waiting For Superman to budget debates, the value of teachers' time is getting questioned like never before. Physical education teachers are spared this searing, but only because few people regard what they do as important to students' success later in life. We tend to think of them as coaches- people who guide kids through drills designed to show off the most athletically gifted. But standout PE teacher instruct kids of all athletic abilities in patience, method, and analysis.

As testing season approaches, let's look closely at how a few New York City PE teachers are helping students apply critical skills and adapt to challenges. (This is just a sampling of the many PE teachers who are enhancing student life. If you know of one, please give a shout out.)

Up first is Stephanie Loria, who teaches part-time at Manhattanville Community College and is also a roving special-ed teacher for kids with emotional needs. She told me that there are "so, so many" ways to harmonize basic lessons with exercise.   Working with her population, Loria focuses on showing how actions lead to discernible, controllable results.  "I say you can eat as many pretzels as you want but you have to burn off the calories, and kids can learn wow, I've had three pretzels and it takes 45 minutes to burn them off!"

As head of an extensive program at gigantic Lehman High School in the Bronx, Diane Hamilton reminds us that learning an athletic routine means learning to respect, and isolate, the steps that make an activity safe and repeatable.   "Kids who come out of a middle school are not used to remembering the combination to their locks," she told me. "So for five days we teach them this- how to go right, left, right."  Hamilton's main mission is to give kids mental clarity to choose  self-expression, rather than overcrowded gyms where there's rarely time to even stretch. She's recruited partners like the Dolphin Fitness branch nearby and the staff of Bear Mountain to help match students with sports that interest them.

Once you know what you like to do, you're readier to learn by helping others learn. John DeMatteo (who teaches middle-schoolers at PS 126, my daughter's school) emphasizes collaborative play. His kids need to create human chains to move a ball along the gym floor. If someone drops it, everyone goes back to the start- so instead of keeping score, kids learn to analyze flow and isolate problems.

Where does this pay off? Loria thinks some true gains will come when parents see phys-ed as an asset in their family life. "We should have parents and students engage in fitness nights, have parents and teachers use the weight room or play volleyball," she told me.

That resonates with me, and probably with you too. Whatever test you're about to take, it helps to remember that in real life you rarely learn alone.

Students enjoying- see?- the NYC FITNESSGRAM test (Courtesy DOE)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he needs to trim fat from public budgets. Here's an unbeatable move: cut test-prep time in half and staff up physical education. The numbers prove that athletic testing creates confidence, while academic testing can leach it. And a student's rate of improvement on athletic tests predicts her rate of improvement on other tests.

A study published in ScienceDaily shows that students performed better on academic tests just after a bout of physical activity. And numerous studies show that the correlation persists across years: when students improve year over year on calisthenic scores, they also tend to improve their academic scores. New York City knows this. It just needs to be less shy about it.

The city school system, in 2006, adopted a fitness test called Fitnessgram that measures physical condition on five variables.

A multi-year study of roughly 200,000 students taking NYC FITNESSGRAM tests suggests a strong correlation between fitness and higher levels of math and literacy, says the head of fitness for the Department of Education, Lori Benson.

Young people benefit from exercise even if they go from sedentary to slightly active - and the means to this success can entail basketballs, yoga poses or Dance Dance Revolution units.  So Benson says the vital task for educators is to help young people find sports they enjoy enough to pursue on their own.

The variable to watch is improvement - not win-loss record or even total Body Mass Index (BMI).  A person's weight responds to a tangle of environmental and social factors, from the ubiquity of Dunkin' Donuts, to the scarcity of bikeways, to the prevalence of bad air quality in poor neighborhoods. But a child's fitness responds to the ways people teach her to concentrate her mind and respect her body. Schools can't change the outside culture - but they can and should change students' base fitness level.

That's an idea a governor - or, more locally, a cash-strapped principal - would be hard-put to dismiss in the quest for measurable gains.  "We can't necessarily hold principals accountable for BMI," says Benson, "but they can perhaps think about how fitness may be a performance measure."

That was then: Henry Street Settlement gym class, 1910. - via

In recent years, many schools have cut gym time in an attempt to focus more on academics. But research shows they should be doing the opposite: Better fitness means  better performance on academic tests.

Studies in California, Philadelphia, Massachusetts and New York City bear this out: "Results indicate a consistent positive relationship between overall fitness and academic achievement,"  a 2005 California study reports. "That is, as overall fitness scores improved, mean achievement scores also improved." (Much more research is cited on the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.)

The gym class most of us remember--or would like to forget-- consisted of "useless" drills, after which natural athletes made the varsity while "the rest of us watched," UCLA  public-health scholar Dick Jackson told me recently. That kind of class doesn't help much. But techniques that improve fitness for everyone - which more and more PE teachers use- have an important role.

I described the importance of phys ed programs to students' health in my first post.  But where are they supposed to happen?  Consider these statistics compiled about Bronx public schools, attributed to former borough president Adolfo Carrion: "... 23 percent of Bronx schools have no indoor gyms: 22 percent have no outdoor facilities: 25 percent have no certified physical education instructors, and 90 percent of elementary schools and 50 percent of secondary schools failed to minimum state-mandated physical education requirements."

Lori Rose Benson, head of the DOE's Office of School Wellness Programs, faces the formidable task of  helping 1.1 million kids incorporate exercise into their daily lives when no school can offer gym class every day. She's doing it by focusing on clever scheduling, offering a wide variety of sports, and training teachers to make every minute count.

"Prior to this administration there hadn't been a systemic way of supporting PE after the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s," Benson told me. "When I started in 2003, 75 percent of elementary schools had at least one PE teacher. That has grown to 92 percent, because there are folks within our system talking to principals about what's realistic in scheduling."

Benson and her team have joined forces with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They imported and adapted programs like CHAMPS and NYC FITNESSGRAM that measure student health and encourage students to find sports they enjoy. And, says Benson, they made pincer attacks on the daily schedule.  "DOHMH bought a curriculum through [City] Council money, and we got a grant from Nike to use the Spark curriculum," Benson said. The Spark curriculum helped DOE "train upwards of 2000 teachers to think about how they can insert small fitness breaks into the day."

Some might call this triage. But if it helps school leaders focus more on fitness outcomes than merely on minutes spent in gym class, a training-heavy approach can break old stereotypes.  For now, statisticians at the health department are finalizing a 2009 study that shows a distinct positive correlation- a line drive, one might say- from improvements in NYC FITNESSGRAM scores to improvements in academic test scores.

Here's hoping Benson and her team can use that finding to secure more training dollars to help PE teachers establish themselves as key players on the learning squad.

Thursday, 24 March 2011 05:57

Fitness Focus: Get nonprofits on the team!

At MS 210, an overcrowded school in Ozone Park where 81 percent of the 2,070 students get free lunch, Principal Rosalyn Allman-Manning has gone outside the Department of Education to add to her phys-ed menu. She's one of four principals this year to pilot a partnership between the DOE and Row New York,  a not-for-profit that introduces disadvantaged girls to the thrilling-but-preppie sport of crew. (The other programs happened at the Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria, Queens, IS 73 and IS 61 in Maspeth. Row New York's own programming happens outside in warmer months.)

On the day I visited, Allman-Manning stood in the auditorium doorway with me as the girls finished calisthenics. She asked a girl what she liked about the sport. "I like that you have to use teamwork," said the girl, chugging off to the stage for her time trial.

This display testified to a new DOE policy that seeks to give kids lots of choice in seeking sports that speak to them. It includes ski passes and health-club vouchers. Critically, at the pilot stage it involves nonprofit partners who can deliver the salient lessons.

Nonprofit partners bring their own resources and fundraising capacity to the public schools—as well as exposure to unusual sports that may not be offered in ordinary PE classes. This is a shrewd investment, because it corrals outside capital to bring students benefits that nobody can calculate.

Sports are idiosyncratic rituals - and it's not worth scarce DOE dollars to buy specialized equipment everywhere.  Yet nobody can say conclusively that a given sport is not worth trying. Letting partners like Row New York bring their assets, in an athletic analogue to the arts-focused Studio in a School, the DOE can encourage more athleticism.

And that encourages more self-esteem. At the end of the MS 210 rowing season, the Row New York teacher introduced me- " he's going to write about you maybe!" - and the girls applauded at the idea that someone would tell their story. They high-fived me on the way out. Their exuberance captures sports' educational role. Training in a sport teaches kids to both intuit and analyze the ways that working in groups and mastering processes can lead to higher self-esteem and firmer commitment to others.  It gives kids more techniques, and more ballast, for expressing who they are.

And anything like that deserves outside help, because our school culture shortchanges self-expression.

A little later, I unlocked my bike on the corner of 101st Avenue and 93rd Street. School had just let out and a school safety cop lurched between two girls. "Go now!" she yelled. "That's enough hugging!"

If the system makes hugging shameful, the least it can do is make fitness attractive.

Thursday, 10 February 2011 06:04

Fitness Focus: Get phys ed back in shape!

Alec Appelbaum writes about urban design and policy for the New York Times and others, focusing on ways cities can become healthier. He is a parent at PS 126 in Manhattan and enjoys exercising on his own and with his family. In "Fitness Focus," he'll be blogging about how to get physical education back in shape in city schools.

As parents, we all do things we never expected to do. For instance, I do daily stretches and run around with my pre-K daughter before breakfast, because otherwise she won't get enough activity during the day. (And yes, it's lots of fun.) I started that practice the same reason I'm starting the Fitness Focus blog:  because physical education is severely limited at most schools, and I see ways to rectify that.   

Statistics about kids' health can turn your stomach. Karen Lee, who manages the health effects of buildings for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told an audience of design professionals last week: "Over 40 percent of our elementary school children are overweight or obese, and this situation is actually worse than in the rest of the country."

Let's move our feet rather than wringing our hands. The Department of Education is rethinking how physical education fits into the school day, but the need for change is massive.

When you were a student, weren't you more prepared to sit through a class in  geometry or Shakespeare after you worked off some energy? Scholarship bears  this out. Action for Healthy Kids, an alliance of national medical groups, reports  "a strong correlation between aerobic fitness and academic performance as measured by grades in core subjects and standardized test scores." And this relationship intensifies with practice: "Several large-scale studies found improvements in  academic performance with increased time spent in physical education."

Conversely,  a gym-free day denies kids the chance to develop memory skills (which sports develop) and social skills (which sports reinforce). This is especially so in disadvantaged neighborhoods, where poor air quality and fears of truck traffic can lead parents to keep kids indoors after school.

Lori Rose Benson, head of fitness and health education at the DOE, says the department is training phys-ed teachers, and encouraging classroom teachers, to incorporate aerobic activity into daily lessons. But she lacks adequate money and power.  City schools grapple with limited funds and limited space- some new schools in old buildings have no gyms, and others are severely overcrowded.

Benson is moving on several fronts. She's put middle-schoolers through a fitness test that statisticians are now correlating to academic test scores (with evidence of a positive correlation to be released this year). She's found money for fitness teachers' professional development and trained 1200 teachers to stitch active sessions into classroom modules. She's promoting a national curriculum called Physical Best and a middle-school curriculum hat emphasize helping kids find athletics they enjoy.

But without more phys ed teachers and a clearer mandate from the DOE, principals can still scuttle phys ed budgets.

Diane Hamilton, assistant principal for fitness at Lehman High School  in the Bronx told me: "I've been here since 1981. I know the majority of phys-ed teachers and they're jammed with 50 kids, and sometimes 100. By the time all the kids do a mild stretch, I can count on one hand the times they'll touch a volleyball."

Yet Hamilton and a few others have busted the old model by forming inventive partnerships. At Hamilton's school, students get $35/year  memberships to nearby Dolphin Fitness clubs and can use a nearby pool. At my daughter's school, PS/MS 126 in Manhattan, grants filled the closet behind the "gymnatorium" with exercise machines - and put a climbing wall on the stage.

Is this adequate to address the obesity epidemic? Not by a long shot, Hamilton told me. "Kids today don't learn to hop, skip and jump."

You start with a single step- so where to?  In upcoming weeks, I'll explore new partnerships  with nonprofits, creative use of cramped buildings, and good phys-ed teachers' welcome emphasis on fun and collaboration. Please tell us what's working (and not working) in your school.