Headline writers for the tabloids could really have a field day if they visited the physical education departments in one California middle school and one Missouri high school. "Kids Juggle, Walk, and Lose Weight at School -- and Get Credit!"

It's like this: A sizable number of the nation's secondary schools are taking the fitness commitment seriously and are teaching skills that would have been sneered at 20 years ago.

"When I was a teenager in the early 1960s in the Midwest, phys ed classes for girls were pretty much of a joke," recalls Kathy Major, a faculty member from Parkway Central High School in suburban St. Louis. "Females were supposedly too weak to play full-court basketball. Competition between schools was very limited for girls and classes were never coed."

A male colleague in California, who credits football with keeping him in high school in the '60s, recognizes that not everyone shared his love of competitive, combative sports even then. "Many parents, especially those who were in high school before 1970, tell me that their physical education experience was definitely a negative one," comments Jean Flemion, PE department chair at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas. "If you couldn't score points in a team sport, you felt left out and probably hated the class."

Major and Flemion, who have risen above the restrictive team sports-or-nothing curriculum are today the driving forces on their respective physical education faculties.

Kids should learn fitness first, they both agree, and team sports second. Their gifted teaching abilities and creativity in designing curriculum has been acclaimed by various panels, committees, and organizations. The "gold medal," if you will, came when Major and Flemion were nominated by their peers for "Teacher of the Year." The nationwide competition is sponsored annually by the 26,000-member National Association for Sport and Physical Education, headquartered in Reston. Flemion was named "Teacher of the Year" for 1990 and Major for 1989.

Join the Circus

"I have never observed a group learn to juggle as quickly as the 60 students in one of Jean Flemion's sixth-grade classes," says Betty Hennessy, a consultant to the Los Angeles County Office of Education. "After Jean's instruction, students formed clusters and assisted other students to learn the designated skills. As soon as all the students in a cluster mastered the task, all of them scattered to other clusters that needed assistance."

Flemion's juggling class is part of the popular "Circus Unit" that is a required credit course for all sixth graders. He developed the coed class several years ago to introduce the concept that physical education is the "joy of movement." Youngsters learn to juggle bean bags and then move on to clubs and rings. Instruction is also provided for unicycles, pogo sticks, stilt walking and the bongo board.

"Several of the activities are done with two and three partners, and require real cooperation," explains Flemion. "The kids really like this five-week course and are proud of their new show-off skills."

"We've become quite well known in California, and every year we have about 70 students who perform on a demonstration team. We perform these circus skills at elementary schools, local shopping malls, parent-teacher programs -- just about anybody who invites us," he adds. "You can imagine what this performing does for the self-esteem of a 13-year-old," says Flemion.

The physical education staff at A.E. Wright is proud of its students' skill achievements, but they are equally pleased to see social skills improve. "Social skills are the most important part of our curriculum," says Flemion. "Most PE educators think that means sportsmanship and teamwork -- we believe it's much more than that."

With the Golden Rule as a base ("no religion finds fault with that"), the budding teenagers participate in lessons about caring, honesty, cheating and fighting. Quizzes, too. Each student is also a member of one "family crew" during PE class. The "future leaders of America" chart the class's performance in the mile run; the "disk jockeys" set up music for activities; "medics" assist with injuries that occur in class by notifying the teacher or running to the office, and the "new kid crew" welcomes new students by showing them the cafeteria line, restrooms, etc.

"Our department gets about 30 to 40 visits each year, so these kids are really in the public eye. It's so important to teach children how to get along with other people," says Flemion. "Schools can help students become proficient mathematicians, or athletes or artists, but if those young people don't have basic social skills, they can become worthless to society."

Family Night & Newsletters

Parents of students at A.E. Wright Middle School have several opportunities to find out if their children are becoming worthy members of society. Each semester, the entire family is invited to participate in "Family Sports Night" at the school's gymnasium. Last fall, about 300 guests jumped, hopped, and raced through relays, crazy skills and fitness challenges. A comical awards ceremony concludes the evening.

"In the spring, we have a water balloon contest and watermelon seed spitting contest with the families," says Flemion. "Parents sometimes ask me what the connection is with physical education, and I tell them: 'Absolutely nothing! We just want you to have fun with your children.' "

Throughout the year, the PE staff keeps parents informed of department news with a periodic newsletter, "From the Locker Room." To consolidate postage expenses, it is mailed with the PTA newsletter. Response has been very favorable, Flemion says, probably because so many parents' names and students' names are included in each issue. Flemion's rationale for the newsletter? "If you have a quality program, no one will know about it unless you tell them." All students are required to have 50 minutes of physical education daily at A.E. Wright.

When Flemion was nominated for the "Teacher of the Year" award, one middle school student submitted his thoughts in writing. "Great courage has been shown by Mr. Flemion in his daring to be different from other physical education teachers. It isn't important to him that you always be a winner. Mr. Flemion's main goal for his students is to get them to perform at the best of their ability."

Small wonder that this young boy likes PE so well. If he dislikes running, for example, he can participate in 15 alternative fitness activities that provide the same aerobic benefit as running -- just a few options in the curriculum that Flemion developed as a way to teach fitness.

Finding Some Reasons

"I thrived on competitive sports when I was in high school," comments Kathy Major. "But I've observed in this school that most of our students prefer noncompetitive sports. We're finally reaching those students by teaching them fitness skills that can last a lifetime. I'm proud of that effort."

That effort translates into an endless challenge to develop classes for the student who dislikes or loathes team sports. "Let's face it -- some students just don't care about fitness. Walk around the school during lunch hour and observe the junk they're eating. For the student who doesn't see any reason to be in any of our classes, I try to find a reason that will appeal to him," says Major.

With that in mind, Major has developed three new coed classes for her school's PE department in the past two years. And if evaluations from the participating students are influential, all three classes look like a strong bet to continue into the next century. They are: Walking Wellness; Physical Management, and Physical Fitness and Nutrition.

The walking class, which meets daily for an hour, is not for slouches. "We hope the kids will enjoy the walking exercises, but we do expect them to keep up a brisk pace," says Major. The class uses charted paths on the school's 40-acre site and also walks on stairs, hills, and (in inclement weather) in a swimming pool. Some students, having discovered the pleasure of recreational walking, participate in weekend volksmarches, notes Major.

"The kids chart their fitness progress regularly, and the numbers show real progress. The semester's half over, and some of them are walking one mile under 12 minutes," she adds.

While a walking class may seem like innovative curriculum, learning how to lose weight sensibly and receive PE credit for the achievement is undoubtedly Major's most creative contribution to the school during her 17 years on the staff.

Physical Management class, which is an alternative to a regular PE course, meets daily during the semester and requires both parental and medical consent.

"We have weigh-in every other Friday, and the students who are faithful to the eating and exercise program can expect to lose two pounds a week," explains Major. The weight loss program is based on the Meal Exchange Plan and was developed by the American Diabetic Association. One day each week is devoted to Major's lecture or a guest speaker, and the remaining four days are spent in group aerobic activity, such as swimming, walking, and jogging.

"We walked 2 1/2 miles yesterday during class," comments one male student without a trace of complaint. "This is the first time I've stayed on a diet for more than an hour or so," Kara confides to a class visitor. She lost 12 pounds the first four weeks of class.

In 1988, when the first Physical Management class was offered, one student lost 35 pounds and has not regained it, Major reports. "We didn't design this class for the student who wants to lose 15 pounds, although that person is welcome to join us. I saw kids who weighed 300 pounds and were being excluded from a lot of social events in school. Our staff really wants to reach them and help make a difference in their lives," she adds.

For the small percentage of teenagers who are serious and disciplined about fitness, Parkway Central has not cut corners. Physical Fitness and Nutrition is tailored to their goals. During each two-week block of time, the format consists of one day of lecture and nine days of high-level workouts in the school's weight room, swimming pool, track or cross-country territory.

Classroom lectures cover subjects such as training principles, carbohydrate loading, steroids -- "any fitness topic that our staff believes will benefit them," says Major.

The Humorous Ingredient

Humor, while not a criteria for being nominated for Teacher of the Year, seems to come easily and naturally to both Flemion and Major: A group of whining senior boys is playing softball under a dark afternoon sky that threatens rain. One six-footer yells, "Mrs. Major! My hair will get wet!" Major chuckles and shouts to the scattered team, "Keep playing! We'll go indoors when the raindrops are touching!"

Both teachers are constantly on the prowl, searching for fresh and nontraditional ways to teach kids the benefits of taking better care of themselves. Flemion's department recently received a costly set of golf clubs from the father of a former student. "It was really a thank-you gift to our school; his daughter is doing well in high school sports and he just believes in the fitness program we're teaching." A.E. Wright Middle School has nothing resembling a golf course, but Flemion will find a way to introduce the sport to as many youngsters as possible.

Major convinced her teaching colleagues to dismiss their phys ed classes on Nov. 15, 1989, and let the students mingle in the gym for a sports and recreation fair. Several dozen professionals engaged the teenagers in conversations about fitness activities not yet available at Parkway Central: bicycling, tennis, skateboarding, scuba diving, wind surfing, ice hockey, bowling and horseback riding. The first fair was so successful that several area schools copied the idea in 1990; Major plans to resume the event at Parkway Central this year.

"Right now we are writing a proposal to teach a combined home ec and phys ed class. It would be called Nutrition and Fitness, and members from both departments would teach it," says Major. Parkway Central requires sophomores and juniors to take PE class daily for one semester each year.

Judith Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, says the ninth annual Teacher of the Year award will be presented April 4-7, in San Francisco.