Conifer High School's Anna Mead makes sure P.E. educates.
Anthony Camera

No Sweat

Growing up in West Virginia, Anna Mead dreamed of being an Olympic swimmer. It wasn't just a young girl's fantasy, either. When she swam in meets -- her specialty was the breaststroke -- competitive coaches would approach her parents and ask about her plans. But at the age of thirteen, she suddenly quit.

"My aunt told me my shoulders were getting too big," she remembers. "I thought, ŒOh, my gosh, I don't want man shoulders!'"

At the time, Mead says, West Virginia had no high school athletics programs for girls, so she scratched her sports jones by playing backyard football with her brother and his friends. She danced, played volleyball when she could and became a skilled tennis player: "Anything and everything that was athletic that I could do, I did."

In college she began studying to be a psychologist, but she kept going back to the gym. Compared to her high school, college was an embarrassment of riches. "There was so much physical education there, of course I wanted to take all those courses," she says. "But all the classes said 'for phys ed majors only.'" Despite her initial plans, it was only a matter of time before she switched to a physical-education major.

Following her graduation, Mead started teaching special-education classes in West Virginia. In 1978 she moved to Colorado and began substitute teaching in Boulder. Her specialty became "adaptive physical education" -- P.E. for disabled children.

She learned plenty. While teaching at one school in the early 1980s, she noticed that her kids exploded into the gym after lunch, roiling with energy. Inevitably, there was at least one fight. So just before the kids arrived, she turned out the lights. She began the class with yoga and relaxation techniques. The fights stopped.

After teaching in several Front Range school districts, ten years ago Mead landed at Conifer High School. She taught her students not only to run and jump, but also to monitor what food goes into their mouths, because sweat is only one component of health. In addition to teaching phys ed and coaching several sports, she ran the school's adaptive athletic program, building it into an essential stitch in the fabric of student life.

Mostly, though, she tried to make sure that any student who came by the gym felt not just welcome, but thrilled at the privilege of motion. "I want them to learn to love to move," she says. Her work hasn't gone unnoticed. Last month, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education named Mead 2004's Secondary Physical Education Teacher of the Year for the nine-state Rocky Mountain region.

When it comes to high school gym class, some things never change: the screech of a coach's whistle; the slap of hard red rubber balls hitting a polished wooden floor.

"Um, I have this note?" a girl says, pushing a crumpled piece of paper into Mead's hand minutes before her 10 a.m. class on a recent day at Conifer High. Mead gives it a cursory glance.

"Okay," she says matter-of-factly. "You can do the balance exercises, and when you get to the running station, just walk. You can do that, right?"

Yet other features of today's gym class would probably be unrecognizable to any grownup of a certain age. For starters, it's not gym, it's physical education. And it's not just all fear, aggression and humiliation anymore. There's actually some learning that goes on. Posters that instruct students in good nutrition and how to calculate their basal metabolic rate are displayed alongside pennants testifying to past athletic glory.

To anyone who grew up remembering gym class as a rather straightforward, if intimidating affair -- slump into the locker room, pull on the embarrassing shorts, enter the gymnasium just as the beefy guy known as "coach" dumps a bag of balls onto the floor -- Mead's class is an eye-opener. After attendance is taken, the students jog around the gym to get their blood flowing. Then it's stretching, then twenty minutes of exercise at stations designed to enhance the various components of fitness: flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, balance.

After another round of stretching, it's time for the actual teaching to begin. The two dozen or so girls in today's class are in the middle of choreographing their own creative aerobics routine, which Mead will then burn onto a DVD and deposit at the local library, available to any member of the exercising public who wants to check it out.

Most people would agree that it's a welcome change from the high-stress, hope-I-don't-get-picked-last-again gym classes of their youth. Despite the improvements, however, the most obvious thing that's changed about gym classes lately is that there are far fewer of them than there used to be.

Whenever a new program must be squeezed into the already short school day -- anti-bullying, alcohol awareness, CSAPs -- it always seems to be the physical-education department that takes the hit. As a result, P.E. has slowly been edged out of the curriculum until, in some places, it's practically left the school grounds altogether.

While the Colorado Department of Education sets general guidelines for its students' physical development, the particulars are left up to each district. Some take the job of making sure students learn about how to stay healthy seriously. Adams 12, for instance, requires high school students to take two full years of P.E.

In Jefferson County, by comparison, high-schoolers barely have to break a sweat. In the district where Mead teaches, students are required to take a single semester of phys ed before they graduate. That's not one semester a year; it's one semester in their entire four-year high school career.

Even that wisp of a requirement seems destined to disappear into thin air. President Bush's sweeping education-reform plan, No Child Left Behind, pays scant attention to P.E. Last year, the Colorado Commission for Higher Education released its updated pre-collegiate curriculum requirements for application to state-funded universities. Phys ed was nowhere to be found.

The message is clear: If there is no reason for college-bound students to take P.E. to get into a good state school, what's the point of taking it at all? "We've been hanging on to our one-semester requirement, and now I don't know if we're going to be able to keep that," laments Mead.

Rick Kaufman, spokesman for the Jefferson County School District, explains that when it comes time to select classes each year, the state graduation requirements have forced parents and kids to make difficult choices between, say, music or a foreign language and a healthy body. "It becomes a decision of whether they take phys ed or something else," he says.

The baffling part is that all of this is happening at a time when the state's children can least afford to stop moving. Colorado has always enjoyed the distinction of being one of the leanest states in the country. But a new government report shows that we're literally gaining quickly. Fifteen years ago, less than 7 percent of Coloradans were obese; today that figure has more than doubled, to 16 percent.

It's not hard to see why. If regular exercise and healthy eating are the keys to good health, many school districts are failing miserably. Immediately outside of Mead's gym class sit four Pepsi-Cola dispensers and two snack machines stocked with chips and candy. Lunchtime isn't much better. Given a mandate to make money, the cafeteria is forced to cater to teenage tastes. Not surprisingly, the runaway bestseller is french fries. "Some kids eat nothing else," admits Mead.

Other states are starting to make the connection between the disappearance of physical education in their schools and the growing waistlines and deteriorating health of their residents. California requires students to take 100 minutes a week of P.E. This spring, alarmed South Carolina legislators -- noting that state residents ranked tenth in the country in obesity, first in the number of strokes and third in heart disease, and that the number of overweight children had tripled in the last generation -- introduced a bill mandating that every elementary-school student take at least 150 minutes a week of physical education.

So where are Colorado's lawmakers? Mead has a theory. "I don't understand the people who are making these decisions," she says as she hangs her whistle around her neck and prepares to head out to class. "The only thing I can think of is they must've hated gym class. They were the kids getting pounded in dodgeball."


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