Parents at a high-achieving Washington charter school say their children are not being offered physical education classes despite a law that requires the city’s schools to make such classes available to all students.
Steve O’Sullivan and Melody Webb are among a group of parents who found out last week that BASIS DC, a charter school in downtown Washington known for its demanding science and technology curriculum, would not offer PE classes to all students who want them. The couple’s son is in seventh grade and entering his third year at the school, and they expected that the PE classes he took in his previous years at BASIS would be an option for him this year, too.
But just days before school began Monday, the couple say that they and other parents learned that just one physical education class is being offered for seventh-graders and that it is vastly oversubscribed. Students were out of luck, even though the District’s Healthy Schools Act of 2010 requires that public schools and public charter schools provide middle-schoolers with at least 225 minutes (3.75 hours) of physical education each week.
Tim Eyerman, the head of school at BASIS DC, did not respond to requests for comment. Katie Perry, a spokeswoman for the BASIS network, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., said in an email that “as part of the BASIS DC curriculum, PE is a required class for 5th and 6th grades, however, it is only offered as an elective in 7th grade — along with Art, Music, Drama, and Robotics.”
Parents at BASIS DC who were told their students couldn’t take PE were advised to have them choose one of the other electives instead.
That response isn’t cutting it with parents who believe that D.C. law clearly requires that the school make physical education available to their children. O’Sullivan said it was a complete shock for his son that he wouldn’t have any PE this year.
“BASIS doesn’t even have recess, so a physical education class is essentially the one chance for these 12-year-old boys and girls to do their running around,” he said. “It’s kind of embarrassing that the school doesn’t have this.”
Gretchen Kittel, the parent of another seventh-grader at BASIS, is supportive of the school and its academic rigor but insists that a balance is imperative.
“To have them confined for a whole day with no physical activity is just nuts,” Kittel said. “We have to get these kids off of their rear ends and moving. You have to develop the body and the mind in order to achieve academically.”
Kittel said that in previous years, students were allowed to participate in exercise or physical activity for 20 minutes of their daily 50-minute lunch break. But she said that option also has been rescinded.
Passed in 2010, the Healthy Schools Act aimed to ensure that all the city’s students in elementary and middle schools received physical education as part of the regular school week, as studies have shown that physical activity has numerous benefits to students in and out of the classroom. The amount of time students spend doing physical activity in school appears to be linked to higher standardized math scores in D.C. schools, according to an American University study released in February that examined the effects of the city’s law; that study found that schools offering more physical activity had significantly better math success.
O’Sullivan and Webb said they reached out to the Public Charter School Board and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education on Monday to inquire about BASIS’s physical education program but had not received a response from either office.
“We have no indication at this time that BASIS PCS is not meeting the physical education requirement of the Healthy Schools Act,” Fred Lewis, an OSSE community relations specialist, said in an email.
A representative for the Public Charter School Board, which oversees the city’s charter schools, declined to comment.
O’Sullivan said that on Wednesday morning he and his wife met with Eyerman, who told them there were practical difficulties with scheduling and space that made it so the school could not make PE available for all students. And they said he also told them the school was not obligated to meet the requirements set out by the 2010 law. Eyerman and Perry, the BASIS spokeswoman, did not respond to questions about whether the school would make physical education available to all of its students.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the council’s education committee, said he wasn’t aware of the specific complaints against BASIS DC but made clear that the law applies to all of the city’s traditional public schools and public charter schools.
He acknowledged, however, that the law has been difficult to administer. In addition to the physical education requirements for middle-schoolers, the Healthy Schools Act of 2010 required that public schools and public charter schools provide 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of physical education a week for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“It’s been an issue across the city,” Grosso said. “This law has very specific standards on numbers of minutes that a student must have physical activity. And it’s a true challenge with the time available in the day to do this and to do a full implementation. It is simply very, very difficult to manage.
“The challenge for now is how do we hold them accountable to do what’s right and follow the law but also don’t be so draconian on them that they can’t continue to operate as a quality educational institution,” Grosso said.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who authored the Healthy Schools Act, agrees that enforcement of the law presents the city with a dilemma.
“When we passed this legislation, we showed all of this data about how this physical education actually makes a difference in performance,” she said. “The problem is that if schools are not in compliance, it’s a difficult thing about enforcement. You could take funds away from them, but nobody wants to do that. You really just want them to comply.”