D.C. schools continue to fall well short of meeting physical education and activity requirements set forth by the city, according to a report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
The D.C. Healthy Schools Act of 2010 mandates that students in kindergarten through fifth grade receive 150 minutes of physical education per week, while students in sixth through eighth grades receive 225 minutes. At least 50 percent of that class time must include physical activity.
However, the District’s traditional public and public charter schools have not come close to meeting those requirements since the act was instituted. In the 2017-2018 academic year, schools reported that younger students received, on average, 91 of the required 150 minutes of physical education. Students in grades six through eight received 137 of the mandated 225 minutes, according to the 2018 Healthy Schools Act Report.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who wrote the Healthy Schools Act, is expected Tuesday to submit a measure requiring schools that have not met the physical education goals to provide a plan for reaching them. Cheh will also propose requiring the state superintendent’s office to provide assistance to those schools to help them reach the targets. The council could vote Tuesday on the amendments.
The schools failing to meet the requirements are in all parts of the city and at every level of education. School health profiles submitted by each school show many reported offering students 45 minutes or less of physical education per week. Some offered no time.
The report shows glimmers of progress. Two years ago, just 10 of the District’s more than 200 public and public charter schools met the physical education requirement. This year, 44 schools met the target, according to Fred Lewis, spokesman for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
But overall increases in the last school year are mostly negligible. Total time of physical education — self-reported by all public and public charter schools — increased from the previous school year by seven minutes per week for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and by just one minute for sixth- through eighth-graders. High schools do not have a set time requirement for such instruction.
According to the report, the increases demonstrate that “these schools are making steady progress toward meeting the physical education requirement of the Healthy Schools Act.”
But critics contend there is no real effort by schools to meet the requirements and no penalty for failing to do so.
“To put it bluntly, following the Healthy Schools Act is not a priority for [D.C. Public Schools] or individual public charter schools, and they’ve ignored the law,” said outgoing State Board of Education member Joe Weedon (Ward 6). “Neither [the superintendent’s office] nor the council have done any meaningful oversight to understand why the law is not being met or force our city’s school systems to take the necessary steps to comply with the law.”
Weedon said the goals are realistic and can be met with more investment in physical education teachers and a move away from “drill and test methods” that teachers in the District are forced to follow, rather than being allowed to encourage physical education as an integral part of the school day.
The requirements were a response to health problems related to childhood obesity and diabetes. The act emphasizes nutritious school meals, health education and environmental literacy.
“We know the data show that children learn better if they’re not just regimented in their academic program all day long,” Cheh said in an interview. “It’s not just bubble tests for math and reading that are important. The whole school day is an education, and physical education is part of that.”
Cheh said she hopes the measures being proposed Tuesday will provide a needed push and offer assistance to those schools not meeting required physical education minutes.
In a statement, the state superintendent’s office said that while schools want to comply with the physical education act, they find it challenging to strike a balance between academic subjects and physical activity.
The agency said it believes “the correct approach is to support schools through ongoing training, technical assistance and other resources, rather than take away resources from schools as they work toward compliance.”
D.C. Public Schools did not answer questions about why the requirements are not being met, but it said in a statement “that physical education is critical to preparing our students to lead healthy and active lives, which is why we developed a robust program that ensures they have the skills they need to live a healthy lifestyle. We teach every second-grader to ride a bike; our students learn about locally grown produce and how to cook healthy meals at home; and we offer swimming lessons at schools throughout the city.”
The D.C. Public Charter School Board did not answer questions about why some charter schools are falling short.
When the Healthy Schools Act was passed in 2010, the physical education requirements earned the District a gold-standard rating from the Society of Health and Physical Educators and put the city on par with other urban school systems, including Miami-Dade and Chicago.
The District exceeded the requirements of many of the surrounding suburban school systems.
But for critics like Weedon, the requirements are meaningless without a mechanism to ensure they are met, and the funding and the will to make that happen.
Cheh said she hopes the amendments she has proposed will do just that.
“These goals weren’t just aspirational,” she said. “We know academic performance improves with physical activity, and we want children to develop a practice in their life of physical activity.”