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.

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Monday, 06 December 2010 06:34

Pre-K Corner: No nuts in the classroom?

When my daughter Night Owl was two weeks into pre-kindergarten, we received an e-mail from the teacher: “Due to a nut allergy, our classroom will be strictly nut-free” Since pre-K children eat lunch in their classrooms, this meant Night Owl would have to forgo her preferred lunch of almond butter sandwiches, and I momentarily panicked because she’s seriously underweight and will not eat meat or eggs; nuts are our trusty source of protein. Pesto was out, too: it contains pine nuts. Ditto hummus, because of the sesame factor.

So we settled on a regime of cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches and even got a little creative some days, and it wasn’t the catastrophe we had feared. She didn’t waste away. She tried school lunch a few times. And in the process, she learned about food allergies and protecting friends. She even attempted to work this new knowledge to her advantage–or perhaps it was solidarity to her pal that prompted her, one night at dinner, to fold her arms across her chest and announce: “I can’t eat this–I’m allergic of chicken.”

While I know that nut allergies are a real and grave threat to a growing number of children, I can’t help, at times, but raise an eyebrow at the mass hysteria surrounding them. School-wide peanut bans? Nut free zones in public places? These seem like unrealistic and paranoid measures, given the actual percentage of children afflicted with life-threatening allergies (currently, an estimated .8% of children has a peanut allergy). Then again, my kids are some of the lucky ones. And in our case, as the school year went on, what had initially seemed like a drastic measure to me (why not just have a nut-free table, I had wondered) turned out to be a small compromise to make in the balance: what’s a picky, scrawny kid compared with one who could become dangerously ill?

Starting at the end of the pre-K year, students at PS 29 transition to lunch in the cafeteria. From then on, it’s pretty much a free-for-all, with seat swapping, food scattering, and the offering of PB&J to any kid who doesn’t like what’s on the hot lunch tray. Those with serious food allergies keep EpiPens at school in case of an emergency, and personnel are prepared to administer them. As far as I know, there have been no nut-related tragedies.

At Night Owl’s new school, nut-free classrooms do not exist, the rationale being “It’s not a nut-free world.” In other words, in the long run it’s pragmatic to teach children to watch out for themselves and for their friends, since conceivably they will be frequenting places other than school, where people eat nuts. This to me seems a wise approach…but perhaps a busy pre-K classroom is too soon to impart this message.

Should schools or zones within them be designated nut-free for a child with allergies? What is your school’s allergy policy?

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City Council Speaker Christine Quinn released a report called FoodWorks, featuring 59 proposals for improving health and sustainability throughout the food chain and throughout the city.

The report was released last week to a packed auditorium in Food and Finance High School Quinn was introduced by an articulate student from Food and Finance, who said his ambition to become a chef had been nurtured by the school’s many programs. In addition to offering internships in the city and study of agriculture abroad through the 4H club, the school, in partnership with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, runs an aquaponics program, growing fish and vegetables in a classroom. (Last summer Cornell announced plans to construct a large rooftop greenhouse at Food and Finance.)

Many of FoodWorks' 59 proposals touched on schools, not surprising as 25% of New York’s children are obese and schools are the fourth most numerous food outlet category in the city, the report notes.

School-related proposals include:

-       Strengthen the Child Nutrition Act, providing more money for improved lunch and breakfast while streamlining the process for qualifying for free lunch.

-       Mandate breakfast in the classroom for all high needs schools. In a recent study New York’s participation in school breakfast ranked second to last among large urban school districts. (Breakfast in the classroom is currently an opt-in program; to sign up, schools should call Keith Graham at 718-707-4523).

-       Expand salad bars in schools. Currently there are fewer than 600 salad bars for our 1,500 schools.

-       Improve the summer meal program, which is served at 300 summer schools as well as other sites.

-       Expand the capacity of schools to cook. Currently only about one-fifth of schools are able to cook meals from scratch on site.

-       Identify alternatives to Styrofoam in schools and other city food programs. Citing the parent-founded organization Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS), the report says the City Council will co-sponsor a national design challenge for alternative lunch trays.

-       Ensure that garden education is available citywide. The 300 school gardens currently in operation do not meet educational demand, and many teachers are not aware of how to incorporate garden education into their curriculum. Groups that provide garden programming include the Horticulture Society, the Parks Department’s Green Thumb program, and others.

The report’s endnotes cite a number of links to studies and references for looking in greater depth at New York City’s schools and food issues.

Quinn praised the Department of Education for its efforts to buy local food, noting it has spent some $4.5 million in regional food since 2006.

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Friday, 29 October 2010 06:41

Going Green: Good news about school food

The lunch at the School Food Rocks conference last weekend featured the healthiest, greenest recipes that School Food can make. Vegetable stir-fries, Pasta Bolognese, a salad bar with sesame noodles served in the Department of Education's more environmentally friendly new “trayless” paper boats, and vegetarian and Cuban paninis.

In addition to its new, greener menus, School Food was pushing a host of opt-in programs, available to any school that wants them.

One page in the conference program, from the Brooklyn School Food Coalition, was called “Food Changes You Can Make At Your Own School Today.” It featured ideas that cost nothing to the school, such as salad bars, meatless Mondays,  and a fresh fruit and vegetable program.  Many of these changes can be made just by working with your school food manager, with the support of your principal. Some, like salad bars or scratch cooking, create extra work for the cafeteria staff.

Other programs, like school gardens, require TLC from a teacher, parent or group of students.  The city organization Green Thumb was at the conference promoting edible schoolyards. The organization will provide supplies and training; schools have to come up with the enthusiasm and commitment.

Another opt-in program that principals can request from the DOE is Breakfast in the Classroom, a “grab-and-go”cold breakfast in a bag:  juice, muffin, and  yogurt, that one parent complimented as looking “just like something from a deli.” Keith Graham, who manages the program, says the breakfasts promote health and learning, but agrees that the program is a little hard to find on the School Food website. Interested schools, with support of their principals, can call Keith at 718-707-4523.

Schools that can raise $1,000 were invited to request that School Food install a Water Jet in their cafeteria. This is an anti-obesity initiative (apparently unfunded except for installation labor) designed to get students to drink chilled, filtered water instead of high-calorie drinks.

The conference, organized by City Council member and public school parent Brad Lander, was filled with parents, teachers, and organizations that are providing healthier food, growing crops, recycling food scraps, educating kids about food. They believe that we can make  healthy and green cafeteria changes with these new, available options.

This is not to say all problems are solved, or even solvable in the near future. Budget for the federal School Food program is less than $9 billion a YEAR around the country. The charismatic Chef Ann Cooper pointed out that the U.S. spends $3 billion a WEEK on the war in Afghanistan, and $5 billion a WEEK on diabetes and obesity. Legislation to increase funding for school food nationwide is still pending, and activists are still organizing in support of the Child Nutrition Act.

Knowing your options for greener healthier food is a good first step. What greener school lunch initiatives does your school have?

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Friday, 22 October 2010 10:58

Skip the chips! A redo of the lunch line?

How do you get your kid to break the chips and fries lunch habit and eat more lettuce or apples at school?

Check out Friday's editorial page in The New York Times (preferably the print version which shows a chart).  Two Cornell professors, along with an illustrator, have diagrammed what they say is a more inviting school cafeteria lunch line. A "Lunch Line Redesign" appears to entice students into choosing healthier foods than the usual snacks and pizza that have contributed to an epidemic of childhood obesity.

According to the authors,  upstate schools have successfully adopted some practices which encourage children to choose healthier food, such as:

  • Creating a speedier checkout for kids who skip dessert and chips
  • Charging for cookies
  • Moving fresh vegetables, like broccoli, to the front of the line
  • Providing smaller bowls for breakfast cereals

When  Insideschools reporters visit schools, we've noticed an increased number of salad bars, and big bowls of fruit prominently displayed in some cafeterias.  Last spring the Department of Education teamed up with TV celebrity Rachael Ray to promote healthier school food and even school gardens.( On the other hand, parents and students aren't happy about banning all sweets and treats -- especially when sold in fundraisers.)

We're wondering if the lunch line redesign is trickling down into your school. What's happening in your cafeteria? What ideas do you have for persuading kids to choose peas over pizza at lunchtime?

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Wednesday, 01 September 2010 06:51

Autism and baseball

The gods of autism have smiled on us this summer:  Brooks's latest obsession is baseball.

No more Phineas and Ferb or Spongebob cartoons in the morning -- only the replay of last night's Mets game will do. He knows the teams, the lineups, the batting orders, and he often paces back and forth in his overstimulated way and tells me: "Angel Pagan did a diving catch and got an out at first base, but that was only the second out and if they get one more out then they switch sides and the Mets can get up and hit singles or doubles or triples or maybe a sacrifice fly..." and he will happily go on and on unless I redirect him.

This age-appropriate interest is a gift that we're milking for all its worth.  It's making him a better athlete because he's willing to practice running the bases for hours, it's fostering conversations with other kids about their favorite players and teams, and he's actually learning many of the basic rules of the game (although he still occasionally comes out with: “He tried to dunk the runners over” or "One more out and it's a grand slam!") Regardless, his unbridled enthusiasm for the sport is not going anywhere anytime soon.

It is especially poignant for me to watch my husband share his childhood sports team with our son. Until now, Brooks has been averse to the idea of "having a catch" and showed zero interest in these stereotypical father/son activities. These days, when they're not out in the park, they're on the couch shooting the breeze about Jose Reyes, stolen bases, and double plays.

Our biggest challenge is protecting Brooks from the lure of the Yankees—let's face it, when you're seven years old you care less about family history and more about a winning team!

Last night, Brooks found a football game on TV and asked me: "How many outs are there in this game?" I smiled and told him to go ask Daddy.

Phinneas

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Monday, 12 July 2010 12:24

Poll: Summer school in a heat wave?

Summer school opened for thousands of students on July 6 -- coinciding with a record-breaking heat wave.  Unfortunately, while many schools and classrooms have air-conditioning, many others do not.

Last week, some special education students who took yellow buses to summer school suffered through two-hour rides on non-air-conditioned buses. They now have cooler rides, thanks to efforts by NY1 and the parents of the autistic students who lobbied the DOE for air-conditioned buses.

In its weekly letter to principals circulated during the recent heat wave, the Department of Education cautioned summer school site administrators to "limit children's outdoor recess and playtime between the sun's peak hours, 1o:00 am. - 2: 00 p.m " when temperatures reach 95 degrees and humidity is high.  The "high priority" advisory for summer school sites also  advises:  "Students should have easy access to water and be encouraged to drink often. Clothing should be light-colored and lightweight. Please pay special attention to children who may be more susceptible to heat related illness, including those who are obese, have chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and asthma, or are suffering from a gastrointestinal illness. "

We're wondering: should summer school classes be called off when the temperature rises above 90 degrees, especially if the classrooms are not air-conditioned? That's when the city's carriage horses get a day off.

Or, should the city's students, many of whom will be left back a grade if they don't attend summer school and pass the tests in August, study on despite the heat?

Take our poll and let us know what you think.

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The Department of Education kicks off its annual free summer meals program today! All children age 18 or under can enjoy free breakfast and lunch every weekday at sites throughout the city through August 27.

This year for the first time, the DOE will also deliver meals directly to select playgrounds and Coney Island, Rockaway, and Orchard Beaches.

Your child does not need to be a public school student to enjoy a free meal; no registration, documentation or identification is required.

For more information and to find a meal distribution site near you call 311 or check out the DOE's website.

Big Apple Games

The annual Big Apple Games, a free recreation program for New York City kids, starts July 6 and runs through August 12.  Children can register daily for activities at any of the 56 locations throughout the city and will be served breakfast and lunch at no cost. This year activities include basketball, softball, baseball, volleyball, swimming, football, soccer, lacrosse, cross country, track and field, and arts and crafts programs.

For more information call 311 or check out the PSAL's website here.

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Monday, 24 May 2010 09:33

School Gardens, Healthy Kids

Last week was an exciting one at PS29, as Mayor Bloomberg and Rachael Ray visited the schoolyard to hold a press conference announcing greater support for school gardens and school nutrition in New York City. Ray's Yum-o! organization addresses problems of childhood obesity and other diet-related illnesses by encouraging kids to develop healthier relationships with food.  Ray sees school gardens as logical starting places.  

Bloomberg joked that day that his favorite vegetable is "steak," but he also stressed the need to teach children where their veggies come from. He detailed a variety of resources that will help more schools build gardens, including "mini grants" and an informational website, scheduled to launch this fall, that will supply how-to's and links.

PS29, which participates in the Garden to School Café, has seen its garden program take off, thanks to dedicated parents, involved teachers and Emily Freund, an Americorps VISTA worker who spends time tending the garden and coordinating related programs.  On harvest day, kids learned about local food production and got to meet some of the people growing what they eat. Wherever possible, science teacher Tina Aprea-Reres uses the garden as a hands-on learning tool. Parent Alison Cohen, wrote in her blog at WhyHunger.org that "three years ago...we spent a few weekends hauling soil, building raised beds, planting basil, tomatoes and broccoli rabe. But what we really seeded-at least in our little corner of Brooklyn-was a movement." Indeed, what began as a simple feature of the blacktop has since become an integral part of  student life.

Down the street at the Brooklyn New School (PS 146), grants have made possible a garden with rainwater collection and composting systems, as well as movable beds called "Earth Boxes". PS 364 in the East Village uses converted pickle barrels as containers for growing vegetables. "Learning Gardens" have sprouted in City Hall Park, at Randall's Island, and Gracie Mansion.

But what if such programs aren't so easy to launch? As schools struggle with budget cuts, administrators may see a vegetable garden as a luxury, particularly if such basics as text books and copy paper are hard to come by. Space constraints may also be hard to get around, or there simply might not be enough momentum.

Adam Schwartz, a high school teacher at Academy of Urban Planning has been cultivating a garden on the Bushwick Campus grounds.  To promote the garden, Schwartz started the Bushwick Green Team with faculty from the other schools on campus -- Bushwick High School for Social Justice, Academy for Environment Leadership, and the New York Harbor School.  Despite the complex logistics of finding space and time to cultivate a garden on a campus shared by four schools, Schwartz has been able to build raised beds and recruit students to help out in gardens in the Bushwick community.  Teachers also chip in, often funding supplies out of their own pockets. 

Urban Planning has identified a possible space for a larger garden, but it needs funds for fencing and other materials. Student enthusiasm has taken root, and Schwartz hopes that grants will not be far behind.

Does your school have a garden? If not, what have been some of the obstacles in getting one going?

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Recess. The word invites a rush of memories for most of us adults, whether remembrances of freedom or flashbacks to schoolyard bullying. My own memories of those moments of benign anarchy are happy, though peppered with the occasional tears and scrapes.

I stroll past the PS 29 playground daily and watch kids of all ages enjoying their unstructured 30 minutes (and yes, sometimes spy on my daughter). And free-form it is, though monitors stand by to break up a fight or hand out hula hoops if an accessory is needed. From what I've gathered from my daughter, that post-lunch period is an opportunity for inventing games, cementing friendships, and even toughening up against the elements. I know how much energy it takes for her to hold it together through all the lessons and activities kindergarten presents, so I'm happy for her to be able to let loose, even if that means running in circles or just staring up at the sky.

What to do, though, when break time is not so carefree? Enter the recess coach, as described in a recent New York Times article. These professionals are being hired by a growing number of schools (most described were in Newark) to tame excessive schoolyard rowdiness–or motivate kids who can't seem to amuse themselves during their down time. The coaches and schools interviewed seem to truly believe that they're teaching kids constructive games and problem-solving skills– and combating obesity by getting their bodies moving. But the article raises a question: is it really recess, and can kids truly decompress, if rules and structure are imposed upon their play? My reaction was: No–they're taking away recess! For goodness sakes, let these kids learn to work out problems on their own.

Perhaps, as a friend of mine believes (and I agree), traditional recess and its occasional unpleasantness "are rites of passage for kids." But what about when extreme cases of bullying and "Lord of the Flies" type behavior turn tragic, as seen with the recent Phoebe Prince suicide? That's an extreme example, sure, but can recess, in some cases, be a breeding ground for such toxic situations?

My friend's husband, who is a high school teacher, observes that "as kids get older, unstructured time at school is less and less productive." Do kids need to be taught to channel all that energy, lest it turn negative (if recess aides–much less coaches–could even be afforded in this time of budget cuts)? Where to draw the line between allowing kids to cut loose, and making them toe the line?

What do you think of the idea of recess coaches? How does your school handle schoolyard problems? And, is there enough supervision?

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