January 2011
December 20, 2010

Student health, fitness get boost

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Physical education teacher Kirk Ventriquattro demonstrates volleyball serving skills at Carthage High School. Photo by Jeffery Jones.

Some New York school districts, perpetually stressed by budget cuts, are now better positioned to improve physical education and anti-obesity and nutrition programs, thanks to an infusion of federal grants.

More equipment, workout and nutrition programs and exercise spaces are being added at schools across the state as a result of a cluster of grants from the U.S. Department of Education. Physical Education Program grant recipients will close gaps between existing physical education programs and state standards for physical education.

"NYSUT has been out front on the issue of childhood obesity for years — from the 24/7 Let's Go! Program, which was developed by our Health Care Professionals Council, to our efforts in raising awareness on the importance of proper nutrition and exercise," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, whose office oversees health issues for the union. "Efforts to make the entire school community more health-conscious should be applauded."

Physical education teachers, school nurses, cafeteria workers, teachers and school psychologists are now better able to maintain school-wide programs and create new ones to promote overall student health.

In Whitesville, Allegany County, for example, every one of the 300 K-12 students will now wear an accelerometer to track steps and calories burned through arm swings.

Dan Denner, physical education teacher and athletic director at Whitesville Central School, along with physical education colleague Sarah Voss, both members of the Whitesville Teachers Association, are using their district's $463,000 award to create a wellness room that will feature 10 cardio machines and 11 strength machines.

"Our district would never have been able to afford these upgrades," Denner said.

JoAnn Brown, co-president of the Whitesville TA along with Suzie Dempsey, agrees: "This is quite the opportunity for our rural, fiscally strapped, low-income town."

The school cleared a 12-foot wide trail on some outlying property a few years ago and will now be able to install fitness training stations for an outdoor workout circuit for students and community residents.

Joan Coleman of the cafeteria/nutrition team, and school nurse Karen Wahl, both members of Whitesville Educational Support Professionals Association, are part of Whitesville's wellness team to make sure nutritional and overall wellness needs are met.

West Babylon, on Long Island, will use its $1.7 million grant over three years for its Adventure in Lifetime Fitness program, which promotes adventure education, lifetime activity and wellness.

"It's not just based on rolling out the balls," said physical education teacher Lou Howard, a member of the West Babylon Teachers Association.

The district, a previous grant winner, has been collecting data on students in grades 4-12 for eight years, logging an 8 percent to 10 percent decrease in obesity, he said.

Elementary physical education teacher Michael Bellacosa has been working with Howard for years to transform fitness in the district.

Adventures include ropes courses and activities with team building and problem solving. Lifetime activity learning means taking students canoeing, bowling, golfing and ice-skating.

"Our belief is the more activities you bring in, they'll find one or two they'll continue to do the rest of their lives," Howard said.

Grant money will buy roller skates, and other fitness equipment for the high school, where students will swipe a card to record their heart rate and other pertinent data, including how long they spent in the training zone.

Modernizing equipment also means equipping the junior and senior high schools with 30 "Trickster" bikes, which use video to simulate riding a mountain bike.

Wellness also includes nutrition, and students will learn goal-setting and healthy eating vs. dieting.

In the North Country, Carthage scored a $1.3 million grant over three years. The goals are to increase physical fitness, reduce obesity, increase the practice of and information about good nutrition, and better align with state standards on physical education.

Staff will be trained on progressing into what physical education teacher Kirk Ventiquattro calls "the modern era of physical education." He is a member of the Carthage TA, led by Patricia Sheehan, also a physical education teacher.

The fitness center will be complete at the end of the three years, he said. Plans are to eventually make it more open to the community.

Diabetes is a major issue in the district, said Carthage school nurse Sherri Kamide. "I have been a school nurse for 22 years and have seen more diabetic students in the past five years than in the previous years combined."

Other grant winners include public schools in Attica, Auburn, Oakfield-Alabama and Sullivan County BOCES.