There were plenty of accolades for the D.C. Healthy Schools Act when it was passed unanimously by the D.C. Council in 2010 and signed into law by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. With growing awareness of childhood obesity and diabetes as public health concerns, reformers and parents heralded the new law’s emphasis on nutritious school meals, health education and environmental literacy.
The act also created ambitious physical education goals, requiring schools to provide 150 minutes per week of PE for grades K-5 and 225 minutes per week for grades 6-8 by 2014. The requirements were based on studies linking physical health and exercise to improved learning and behavior, and the new mandates earned the District a gold standard rating from the Society of Health and Physical Educators.
But just six years later, the physical education mandates are being treated more like suggestions than requirements by administrators. A Washington Post review of schools’ health profile forms reveal that few schools are in compliance. Just 10 of the District’s more than 200 public and public charter schools meet the physical education standard, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the body that oversees D.C. schools.
Most of the schools are not even close to it, resulting in students across the city receiving far less physical education than required by law. And at some schools, both public and charter, physical education classes are simply not available to all students who want to take them.
The failure by schools to meet the physical education mark is a factor of time, money and priorities, says Donna Anthony, OSSE’s assistant superintendent of health and wellness.
“I think it’s in line with what’s happening nationally with the focus in urban areas on the achievement gap,” she said. “Folks are focused more on reading and math, and so physical education and health education and recess can get squeezed as a result by some very well-intended people.”
Anthony says that physical education “is incredibly important as a component of the health and wellness of our students.” But she acknowledged that the schools have not met the mandates, which increased physical education instruction in 2014 from 30 minutes a week to 150 minutes a week for grades K-5 and from 45 minutes a week to 225 minutes a week for grades 6-8. High schools do not have specific time requirements for instruction.
Physical education standards have been relatively unchanged at most U.S. schools since the early 1990s, and the push by the District was embraced by those linking exercise and academic achievement.
“Folks knew it was coming,” Anthony said, “but that was a pretty hard thing to plan and accommodate for.”
Privately, some school officials say the requirements for physical education were too robust to begin with. Others describe them as aspirational. But the law is not vague about what schools need to provide.
Although the mandates may seem overly ambitious to some, other major urban school districts, including Miami-Dade and Chicago, have been able to meet them, says Carly Wright of the Society of Health and Physical Educators.
“It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s a shift in culture in how to make that a priority. The ultimate goal that [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommend is that children should be getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day,” Wright says. “So is it unreasonable to ask schools to provide at least 30 minutes a day of physical education? Not really. It’s just a shift in thinking and how to work out class scheduling.”
The inability to meet the mandates extends to public and charter schools in every quadrant of the city, and the shortfalls were particularly acute in middle schools.
For example, Howard University Middle Public Charter School provided 45 minutes a week for grades 6-8, 180 minutes less than required. KIPP DC WILL Academy offered 60 minutes a week for grades 6-8. Alice Deal Middle School served up 75 minutes per week. Brookland Middle School provided 100 minutes a week.
Most elementary schools offered between 45 and 90 minutes weekly of physical education, well short of the 150 minutes the law requires.
And just because a school provides physical education doesn’t mean that every student can take it. Parents of students at BASIS Public Charter School and Stuart-Hobson Middle School say that PE classes are oversubscribed and that their children were told to sign up for art or music electives instead. Parents who have appealed to OSSE or D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) say the agencies have not been helpful.
“It’s kind of embarrassing that the school doesn’t have this,” Steve O’Sullivan, a parent of a BASIS seventh-grader who was told there weren’t any PE classes, told The Post last week. BASIS has since agreed to provide an additional physical education class.
School administrators argue that the law puts schools in a difficult position. Middle schools facing the 225-minute requirement probably would have to add an additional PE teacher and make complex scheduling decisions that would eat into traditional classes, says Irene Holtzman, the executive director of FOCUS, the principal advocate for charter schools in the District.
“The combination of personnel and the space considerations just made 225 minutes at the middle school level nearly impossible for just about everyone in the city,” she said. “When schools are looking at the implications for what they are held accountable for the most, which is academic achievement in reading and math, many of them had to make difficult decisions.”
When D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) wrote the Healthy Schools Act, she heard complaints that it would be difficult to implement. But, she says, she won over dubious converts, including then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee, by sharing data that “overwhelmingly showed that when you integrate physical activity into the children’s school day, they learn better, they do better.”
Now, Cheh says, administrators need to figure out how to get schools to comply.
“I don’t think we need new legislation,” she said. “I think we should stick with the standards as they are rather than weakening them and instead focus on the executive branch, particularly OSSE and DCPS, and figure out how we can do it.
“I’m very reluctant to use the heavy hammer of taking away funds. But maybe, as they say, that would concentrate the mind wonderfully,” she said. “But I think before we do that, we should explore as much as possible all alternatives.”
One alternative, OSSE’s Anthony says, is to factor activities beyond PE classes into the total time each school is required to provide.
“As long as we’re getting kids physically active, that’s what should matter the most, not when those minutes are happening,” she says. “We should be leveraging after-school programs and encouraging and incentivizing athletics participation across the District.”
The law, however, requires that the physical education instruction occur during the ordinary school day.