The thin girl with the long, brown ponytail was leaning forward over the mark, again and again swinging her plastic bat ineffectively as the foam baseball sailed straight past her.
From her vantage point behind the ball-pitching machine, teacher Dianna Bandhauer was sizing up how the fourth-grader was moving.
"Back up," she told the girl. "Bend your knees . . . Now, where is your head going?"
The student listened to each instruction, adjusting her stance as another ball whizzed by and she swung at air. "Pivot," Bandhauer ordered.
And with that, her bat connected with the next ball, sailing out into the school yard.
"Good," the teacher said, smiling and moving on to the next small group of children practicing that same activity.
For Bandhauer, the small-group, individualized approach is the only way to teach physical education. Since 1980 she has used this method to instruct Lecanto Primary School students in the individual skills needed to play organized sports while also teaching them to enjoy activity away from the ego-crushing environment many adults remember about their own "phys ed" experience.
After nearly a quarter century working in her open air classroom, Bandhauer is sure that this method works better than old system, which focused simply on teaching the rules of each sport and exposing children to competition.
"Kick ball, dodge ball and capture the flag, I say play them at recess," she said. "Everybody loves them, but they're not instructional."
What those games can do is ruin the physical activity experience for any child who gets picked last or picked on because they aren't athletically gifted. Those games also keep practice time to a minimum since those children athletically weaker get eliminated sooner and all children wait for their turn.
At a time when childhood obesity has climbed to become a top educational issue with state officials, finding a way to keep the least active children from souring on staying active is getting more attention than ever.
Superintendent David Hickey has said he is backing several initiatives that will put the war on obesity on the front burner for the Citrus schools.
The district staff is examining the soft drink vending machine issue in the high schools (see related story), planning healthier meal alternatives in the school cafeterias, exploring new exercise programs for students and staff and discussing the need for providing more opportunities for student activity through physical education.
School officials point to a change in the culture as the cause of the obesity epidemic. Bike riding after school and on weekends has been replaced with computers and video games. Strong physical education programs and recess opportunities have been swallowed up by growing academic requirements. Busy working parents have turned to fast food for their meal selections to save time.
In an era when youngsters define portion sizes with terms like "super-size," educators say it is no wonder some young people today are making unhealthy choices.
Hickey said that, despite any philosophical argument, families should be the ones to teach the basics of healthful eating and exercise. The schools will do what they can, because the next generation needs to hear the messages on staying fit and healthy.
"Every social ill ends up in your schoolhouse," he said.
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At Citrus Springs Middle School, principal Bill Farrell is accustomed to logging in lots of time striding from one end of his sprawling campus to the other. But now, those steps are adding up to something special.
Farrell and other staff members are participating in a program called the Healthy Weight Initiative, which is being sponsored by the Citrus County Health Promotion and Education Coalition.
Steps add up to points. So do exerciseminutes. Bring along a family member to exercise, earn extra credit bonus points. One team even uses one of its members as a cook who brings in healthy food choices carefully measured for portions.
The competition has gotten so stiff among the various staff teams that now and again someone will bring in Tootsie Rolls "as sabotage," Farrell said.
Eventually the teams will add up the points to earn top honors for their hard work. Along the way, they are modeling behavior they want students to copy. The program was the school's incentive for adding a salad bar to the cafeteria. Farrell said he eats there every day.
Soon other middle schools might be seeing more salads too.
District food service director Shirley Greene said her staffers are planning on some lunch option improvements for the new school year, including pre-made salads, pre-made sandwiches, yogurt for all schools and informational brochures about healthy snacking for students.
Currently the county's three high schools offer salad bars to staff and students, and salad shakers are always an option at the elementary school lunch lines. Middle schools traditionally have not had those salad options. Yogurt is another healthy choice available in some but not all cafeterias.
Greene said wrap sandwiches, taco bars and other food that will meet the strict federal school lunch guidelines are also under consideration. Those strict guidelines tell Greene how many calories she must provide for each student while keeping fat content low.
That means that sometimes she must put cakes and cookies in a prominent place on the food line just to meet calorie requirements. She said she is realistic about how much impact offering healthy options will produce.
"We cannot change students' attitudes toward eating. Only parents can do that. What we can do is provide them with choices," Greene said. "But I can tell you this: They'll go for the pizza."
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Back in the Lecanto Primary physical education class, teacher Donna Stewart had gathered her fourth-graders into a formation in front of her. Step by step she walked them through the proper stance to field a ground ball.
Mitts in place, the students began to go through the moves as Stewart had them repeat after her in short phrases how to stand, how to bend, how to reach and how to cradle the ball. Later, she let the children break into small teams of two and three to practice what they learned.
On the other side of the field, Bandhauer's batting work was continuing.
Plastic bats were cracking into wiffle balls and ping pong balls. Now and again a child would call "heads up," and a ball would fly in an unexpected direction.
Bandhauer explained that the small group activities gave everyone much practice, which was the critical issue when teaching children to move correctly. She rotates the groups, exposing all the children to their classmates regardless of their skill level.
Students are sometimes told to make up games, and whatever competition takes place, it is between the student and his own ability or it is initiated by the students. While some might question the methods because there is no standard game played and no winner, Bandhauer said that is the wrong view.
"There is lots of moving . . . and no one is being humiliated," she said.
At Hernando Elementary School, another program will begin soon with help from a $1,177 grant from Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center. The money will be used to purchase pedometers for fifth-grade students.
They will monitor their steps and apply what they find through math class using charts and graphs. The grant will come to the School Board later this month for approval, according to Cathy Reckenwald, district school health specialist.
All students will be able to participate because "everybody can walk," she said. Instead of feeling like this is exercise or competition that could leave less athletic students out, the pedometers make it a goal-oriented activity where the students are competition against themselves.
"We're hoping that this is a long-term commitment, because that's the whole idea of this. It should be a lifelong commitment to eat right and exercise to be the best that you can be."
Reckenwald said the school system also has partnered with the health department to provide more complete sixth-grade screenings that include a test for blood sugar levels. Since one of the many dangers of obesity is a higher incidence of diabetes, these early screenings could provide parents and students early warning that something needs to change for a child or they could be heading for diabetes.
The district also still collects information on body mass index, a measure of obesity based on height and weight. Several years ago when letters went out to parents telling them their child was overweight or underweight, some parents balked.
Reckenwald said the format of those letters has changed now, so parents don't feel the letter is accusing them of doing a bad job with their children. Now the form letter explains that their child is at various health risks if their body mass index isn't in the normal range.
"Our feeling is that if we can keep the kids healthy, keep them hydrated, teach them to eat healthy and make exercise a regular part of their lives, then we're going to have healthier adults," Reckenwald said.
Another new initiative that has middle and high school principals excited is L.I.F.T. America. L.I.F.T. stands for Leadership in Fitness Training.
Citrus officials recently visited the Marion County schools, which use L.I.F.T. It basically is a program based around a cycle of weight machines, treadmills and other exercise equipment. The equipment, which would run approximately $220,000 per school, would ultimately be free to the county's middle and high schools if they agree to provide student data on their physical fitness progress.
Officials are trying to find out whether there is enough room in each of the county's four middle and three high schools to provide the program. Each needs to find 1,800 square feet. Dave Stephens, who coordinates programs for at-risk students in the district, is also determining all the other side costs that would have to be paid for by the school system, such as mats and new power outlets.
"It's one of the programs that I've seen that really could change the way physical education is presented to the students," Stephens said.
The school district is also always looking for ways to expand physical education and athletic programs. But the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and the push to provide as much academic time as possible make that a tough choice, he said.
Stephens said educators are trying to strike the right balance, and academics are indeed critical, especially in this day of accountability.
"There are only so many hours in your day, and administrators have to make hard choices," he said. "It's a tough balance . . . because you know that kids who are more healthy are more active and more aware. They perform better, and educators have known that for a long time."
_ Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendtsptimes.com.
Fourth-grader Kenny Wells practices his hitting technique during physical education class Thursday morning at Lecanto Primary School. Team-centered activities are being replaced with more repetitive, individual-focused activities to ensure that more children actively participate.
Lecanto Primary physical education teacher Donna Stewart instructs fifth-graders, from left, Billy Bass, Andrew Williams and Steven Nero-Davis in baseball fielding techniques Thursday morning. Students took turns fielding ground balls and then returning the ball to a partner.