Oklahoma one of few states without physical education time requirement

Saturday, April 27th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Two giggling second-graders bounce across the tile floor on one foot, then flop to the ground and make the letter D by twisting their bodies.

This is physical education for elementary schoolers. It's a lot of skipping, bouncing, hula-hooping and bean-bag tossing.

In Oklahoma, the state doesn't require it. It's up to school districts to decide whether students will break from reading, writing and arithmetic to get some exercise.

The state is one of three in the nation that has no requirement about how much time students must spend in gym class. A bill that would have changed that _ as well as restricted students from using vending machines to get soda pop and candy all day _ failed at the Legislature this year.

Oklahoma students must meet national standards listed in the state's Priority Academic Student Skills _ PASS _ that include health and physical education. But school districts determine whether they are meeting the standards.

The majority of districts do offer at least some gym and health classes.

Physical education exists in 98 percent of Oklahoma elementary schools, 85 percent of middle schools and 65 percent of high schools, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

Oklahoma students can get physical education waivers if they participate in athletics after school.

``The alignment between healthy kids and better learning needs to be a lot stronger,'' said Dr. Judy Young, director of the association. ``It's not like we're going to do away with math and reading, but we cannot do without some other things that are important.''

Oklahoma's guidelines are slightly more developed than in Colorado and South Dakota _ the only states that do not have any kind of mandate for physical education.

Illinois is the only state that requires daily physical education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Texas reinstated mandatory gym class for elementary students this year, seven years after it was phased out to allow more time for academics. Elementary schoolers will have to take a minimum of 135 minutes of physical education each week.

A bill by Sen. Bernest Cain, D-Oklahoma City, would have required physical education class at least once a week for elementary and junior high school students in Oklahoma. High school students would have had to take one year of physical education.

Cain's bill passed the Senate, but wasn't heard in a House education committee.

Many blamed the bill's failure on money.

It also would have eliminated vending machines in elementary schools and restricted their usage in junior high and high schools. Schools often pay for activities with money earned from the machines.

``You see most of the kids I know staying at home, watching television and eating _ doing nothing,'' said Martin, a senior at East Central High School in Tulsa whose principal allowed him to give only his first name. ``At least some exercise at school would be better than nothing.''

Physical education requirements were phased out of Oklahoma schools in the mid-1990s as academic requirements were added.

``You've created a population of young people that are going to have all of these horrible health problems lifelong and die early,'' said Dr. John R. Bozalis, who works at an Oklahoma City asthma clinic. ``When you look at the socio-economic consequences of that it just scares the heck out of you.''

Bozalis is chairman of a task force on children's health created during the previous legislative session. Lawmakers voted this year to keep the group, which includes educators, doctors and athletic professionals.

The task force determined Oklahoma children are on their way to becoming the fattest generation. As many as one in five Oklahoma children between 6 and 17 are significantly overweight.

Along with that, an increasing number of children are developing type-2 diabetes _ a disease that leads to kidney failure, blindness, amputations and heart attacks.

``As recently as five, maybe ten years ago, you never saw that in anything other than adults,'' Bozalis said. ``Now you keep seeing it.''

Linda Luther, a physical education teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School in Oklahoma City, tries to keep her students motivated by playing games that incorporate other disciplines _ including health topics and the alphabet.

She said she's noticed a change in students' fitness during the last 10 years. On average, students now are more likely to be overweight, snack on potato chips and chocolate bars, and watch television after school instead of play outside, she said.

``The kids are not as motivated,'' Luther said. ``It used to be that you didn't have to push as hard. A lot of them know more about television shows than I ever dreamed about knowing.''