The health and wellbeing of American students should be paramount, regardless of socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the body that recommends students have at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day—has found that just over one fifth of 6 to 19-year-old children reach this exercise goal on a daily basis. This percentage suffers further still in lower- income schools where studies reveal students are less likely to have a dedicated physical education teacher, and as a result, appropriate PE time. These schools also report offering less after school sports activities and often lack the playground facilities, gymnasium equipment, and other factors needed to offer students effective physical education programs.
The Downfalls of No PE Class
This is not good. The importance of both physical education and recess time are well documented, and therefore it is damaging when a school cuts back on either due to lack of funding.
While important to all children, research has found that physical education is especially key in lower-income communities. A study released by the University of California, San Francisco and UC Berkeley found that seventh- and ninth-grade students had lower body mass indexes if they engaged in at least 20 minutes of daily physical education exercise—but that this was less likely to happen in lower-income schools.
Interestingly enough, the study found physical education involvement was the only factor that would lower rates of obesity—and that lower-income students who exercised exclusively by walking to school were actually heavier because they were more likely to purchase unhealthy snacks along the route.
Physical education also boosts school performance. California’s Department of Education found that children who were fit scored twice as well on academic tests, a trend that also proved true when the department tested in lower-income bracket schools. This could be due to the fact that memory, concentration, classroom cooperation, and comprehension have all been shown to improve among physically-active children.
Lower income, urban school students also experience higher levels of stress, which directly correlates with a child’s ability to learn. By pumping endorphins to the brain and improving mood, physical education plays a valuable role in helping lower-income students temporarily forget their troubles so they can have fun and focus in class.
If schools simply do not have the budget to hire a physical education teacher, they should at least strive to offer appropriate supervised recess periods. The recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day does not have to come from PE class, and following CDC and SHAPE America’s guidelines for recess can be a compromise, especially in lower-income schools. Only eight states have policies surrounding daily recess time, so in many cases it is up to physical educators and schools to take the lead.
Finding Physical Education Funding
The existing federal legislation governing physical education in the U.S. is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which received bipartisan support when it was signed in 2015. That legislation sets aside federal grant funding to ensure physical education is a key offering of more American public schools—something its previous counterpart did not guarantee. As part of that law, physical education is considered a necessary puzzle piece in a well-rounded educational experience, and means that physical education teachers can access grant money in the same way that mathematics and English teachers could in the past.
School districts and physical educators can apply for Title I funding through Local Education Agency Plans. Public schools where at least 40 percent of the student population comes from a low-income background are also eligible for schoolwide funding, which simplifies and expedites the funding steps.
Outside of federal funding under ESSA, there are many other resources that low-income schools can access. There are various state-specific and private foundation grants available to qualifying schools, and a grant-finder tool is a central spot to begin your search. Once you find an appropriate grant, there are also plenty of online tools available to help with the writing process. For context, the 2016 Shape of the Nation report says the median physical education budget for American schools is $764 per school year, and that 60 percent of physical education teachers receive a budget of $1,000 or less each year.
The impact of additional funding on low-income schools is illustrated in a success story report published in California. In one school, Emory Elementary, the principal used federal funding to train his teachers to offer guided physical education time for their students. While the school could not afford a dedicated physical education team, empowering all teachers to supervise fitness time meant improved student performance and health. The trained teachers were continuously supported and motivated in their missions with a monthly visit from a physical education consultant.
Cash Strapped? Here Are Some Free Resources
Cash-strapped schools and school districts can also look towards the free resources available online. At SPARK, we offer free downloadable physical education plans for children of all grades. This includes guidance for PE class, in addition to recess and in-class activities. Our website also offers various advocacy tools and guidelines so you can better advocate for the role of physical education, no matter the financial situation of your school.
While all American public school students will benefit from additional physical education time, it is often lower-income students who will reap the greatest rewards. Improving the quality and time dedicated to physical education class is key in bridging the gap between less advantaged students and the happy, healthy, and academically successful students that will lead our country in the future.