WESLEY CHAPEL — Fifth- grader Noah Hauser loves his physical education classes, whether riding the stationary bicycle in the school fitness center or pushing himself on a monthly 2-mile challenge run.
It doesn't bother him a bit if it's just his class participating, or if 80-some kids from four classes are out in the field together.
"It's still fun to play," said Noah, 10. "We always do fun things in P.E."
That's the goal at Wesley Chapel Elementary, Pasco County's only elementary school to win a Bronze Award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. But with budget cuts since then, including the elimination of 13 physical education teacher jobs district-wide, keeping up has become more difficult, P.E. teacher Chris Gorman said.
"We have taken a huge step backwards," said Gorman, a past district teacher of the year finalist who also was the first Pasco elementary P.E. teacher to earn National Board certification. "This year is definitely more challenging."
While slashing spending by $54 million this year, the Pasco School Board made every effort to at least maintain "specials" classes such as physical education, art and music, as well as support in media centers and instructional technology. That meant cuts without elimination.
For that, instructors are grateful.
"I know at some schools it's a lot worse than at mine," said Vivian Garner, a P.E. teacher at Mary Giella Elementary School.
But as principals created schedules to focus on increasingly demanding academic standards, with fewer teachers on their staffs, they had to make choices about how to assign everyone's time.
For many schools, nothing changed in the way they offered P.E. The certified physical education teachers taught 90 minutes weekly to each class, while the classroom teachers made sure their students met the rest of the state-required 150 minutes of weekly physical activity.
"It's just caused us to be creative," Calusa Elementary principal Kara Merlin said. "It's always been tight."
But for others, including Wesley Chapel Elementary, getting all the students in with the P.E. teachers for even 90 minutes a week has proven "virtually impossible," principal John Abernathy said.
"Our district has been really good in trying to give us what we need," he said. "Where it falls short is in state funding. ... We have to balance quality with quantity at some point, and sometimes the quality suffers."
To attain rising reading requirements, Wesley Chapel assigned its P.E. teachers to 30 minutes of daily reading instruction. The school at the same time lost one of its two-day-a-week P.E. teachers.
That meant the P.E. teachers realistically could be scheduled to work only 80 minutes each week with every class, often with them doubled or tripled up.
"It does make it difficult to give positive, specific feedback to every student when you've got a 40-minute period, especially when you're teaching a skill," Gorman said. "Instead of our students getting more exercise, they are getting less."
Garner said she has been helping with reading lessons at Mary Giella Elementary, too — three days a week for 20 minutes each time.
"I'm not certified in reading. I'm certified in P.E.," she said, noting that the school faces a lot of pressure to perform.
Meanwhile, the P.E. staff is bare bones, having lost a part-time teacher as well, and the classes have swelled (P.E. is not subject to class-size rules) while the funding for new equipment shrank.
"The quality of your instruction goes down," said Garner, a 25-year teaching veteran. "You have to play crowd control."
The teachers said they initially welcomed legislation requiring elementary children to have at least 150 minutes of physical activity at school every week, in blocks of no less than 30 minutes. It was good for kids, and they looked forward to making it happen.
They've never been able to fully implement the program themselves, though, because of budget limitations and other academic demands. And things don't look to be getting any better. Already economic forecasters are predicting a dim 2012-13.
"You wonder, if they're doubling us up now, what are they going to do next year if we're short?" Gorman said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.