Funding cuts or state mandates have hit physical education departments hard in recent years, shrinking schedules and forcing some students out of the gym and into remedial reading or math classes.
But middle school students in Hillsborough County will likely see more physical education this fall — and some sports their parents may have never tried — thanks to a key schedule change and creative leadership from schools like Turkey Creek Middle.
This fall, the district will shift from six daily periods to seven at the middle school level, in part to conserve funds in meeting the state class-size amendment. The extra period will allow many students to take more physical education classes, said district supervisor Steve Vanoer.
"Next year, we'll be rolling out educational gymnastics," he said, describing the district's approach. "We'll have tennis, badminton, orienteering, outdoor ed — that's a whole different group of kids, and that's physical activity. We're hoping if we offer enough activity, we'll hook them on one they have a passion for."
Turkey Creek has been at the forefront of a new district effort to teach lifetime sports, along with more traditional team sports. In the process, the school has earned national STARS recognition from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
No other Florida middle school holds the STARS designation, which is based on standards from NASPE and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Turkey Creek earned the honor in 2004, 2007 and again last month.
Officials from NASPE called the school "one of the elite physical education programs in the country."
On a recent morning, the Turkey Creek's physical education department chairwoman Tecca Kilmer led special-needs students in a high energy session of tae bo, an aerobic exercise that combines elements of tae kwon do with boxing moves.
The students — some of them autistic or with Down syndrome — greeted her with giggles and shouts, but quickly focused on the activity once the music started. Soon, many were puffing from the exertion.
"A lot of them are not very active," said Barbara Brannon, a classroom aide who works with several of the students. "Once they get motivated in this class, they get more exercise than they normally would."
Outside, general physical eduction classes finished their warm-up laps around the track and prepared for a session of Ultimate Frisbee.
"Pretty much all classes do cardio work, running before we get started," said teacher Ira Shaw. "Classroom teachers do bell work, we do cardio."
Promoting physical fitness has been a goal in Hillsborough, as in the rest of the country. Childhood obesity has more than tripled since 1980, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
But officials here have worked equally hard to teach students healthy habits and instill a love of physical activity, said Kilmer.
"There's a misconception that PE is recess," she said. "We're really teaching kids how to live."
That includes teaching them how to check their pulse and aim for fitness zones within their age group, she said. The five-teacher department has also gone out of its way to develop new programs.
The school's archery club drew 180 applicants and placed 11th at a state tournament. Monthly fitness nights attract dozens of families. Students pull catfish out of a pond dug by the agriculture department, with gear purchased through a grant. And once a year, the school abandons regular classes for Olympics Day.
"They give us a lot of support," Shaw said. "The things we ask to take out of the schedule, that's not common. They act like what we do is important."
Turkey Creek's principal Dennis Mayo said the school believes in its mandate to help students build solid, lifelong fitness habits and fight health threats like obesity.
"That's a scary thought, knowing our kids might not live as long as we will," he said.
Students said it's not all fun and games, but they appreciated their school's enthusiasm for fitness.
"I like it, but it can be a pain when I'm tired," said Ashley Piechowiak, 13.
Victoria Salina, 13, said she likes trying new sports. Four-way volleyball, a rowdy version of the traditional game, is her favorite.
"Chaos?" she said grinning. "Yeah, it is."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.