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COUNTY SCHOOLS TO MEET P.E. MANDATE WITH NO SWEAT

With classes and recesses, most schools will make only minor changes for a new state rule.

Florida got loads of national attention this summer for its decision to force elementary schoolers onto the playground for more physical activity.

Other states rushed to emulate the initiative, which requires a minimum of 150 minutes of physical education per week for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. The goal, here and elsewhere, was to tackle the rising rate of childhood obesity.

"Obesity rates in our kids have almost tripled in the past 20 years," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel Republican who sponsored the bill in the House. "We're trying to combat that."

But in Weatherford's home county of Pasco, the drive is shaping up to provide little more than what the kids already were doing.

Quail Hollow Elementary in Wesley Chapel, for example, offered two 40-minute physical education classes weekly for its students last year. Its teachers also took their children out for recess for 15 minutes daily.

Even a third-grader can figure out his school could actually cut play time by five minutes and still meet the state mandate.

Of course, recess is not an organized activity. Kids easily can sit out, or get left out. The state Department of Education made clear in a recent technical assistance paper that unstructured recess does not fulfill the new law's requirements.

But if teachers turn recess into an organized activity where everyone must play, then they've met the mark.

"It's not a hard thing at all," Quail Hollow principal Michelle Berger said.

Richey Elementary in New Port Richey has it even easier. Students there get two 40-minute P.E. classes each week, daily 15-minute recesses and bi-weekly 40-minute health and nutrition courses.

"Without changing the schedule, we already meet and exceed the requirement," principal Ken Miesner said. "It's not really going to affect our day."

Maybe the recess can be organized, but what about that health and nutrition course? How does that make children more active?

Well, the state law offers some flexibility in how schools achieve the goal. Free play will not count, but the "development of positive attitudes regarding sound nutrition and physical activity as a component of personal well-being" will.

Even character education lessons, such as teamwork, could count under the law's requirements, Pasco curriculum specialist Sean Brock said.

That's because as lawmakers sought to get children "used to being outside and used to getting their heart rate up," as Weatherford put it, they also "didn't want the bill to have any fiscal impact."

Which meant making it easier to meet the mandate without having to hire more teachers, lengthen the school day or harm learning in key academic areas. Because for every school like Gulfside Elementary in Holiday, which gives kids two recesses a day plus 80 minutes of physical education weekly, there are schools that will have to sacrifice as much as an hour of something to meet the 150-minute level.

The flexibility suits Gulfside principal Chris Clayton just fine, even though his school likely will change little to implement the law. All he needs is for his P.E. teachers to create 10-15-minute lessons that classroom teachers can use during recess.

"At first, we all thought, '150 minutes of P.E? Are we going to be required to provide more time?' " Clayton said, listing concerns that included space and staff. "It would be great. I'm all for that, and definitely our kids would be all for it, too. But we have other mandates, too."

Weatherford said he hoped that schools would not try to game the system. He knew that many Pasco schools were "doing better than most" so they didn't have as far to go.

But if he hears that the majority of schools are doing nothing and getting by, "then I'll come back and revisit it and make the language stricter," Weatherford said. "We'll put in less flexibility."

The new P.E. requirements take effect on the first day of classes in August.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

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