Taquesha Dean is an ebullient cheerleader, who also plays volleyball and is president of the Outdoors Club when her classes end at The Brooklyn Latin School, the newest specialized New York City high school. Dedicated teachers and a rigorous curriculum define Brooklyn Latin, which prides itself in preparing the next generation of leaders with disciplined study of the Classics, sciences and oratorical training called declamations. The one critical component Brooklyn Latin does not offer is a gym.
"Until I came to New York City for middle school, I always had really strong physical education," Taquesha says. "Now, in a high school with no gym, teachers do their best with a rope or a ball, but nobody gets in shape that way." She also laments that the students she recruits for her after-school athletic clubs "can't even run a mile" and balk at going on hiking trips.
Few New York City parents know that their state's regulations require public schools to provide at least 120 minutes of physical education per week. However, their children receive only a small fraction of that time, if they're lucky. Since its inception in 2002, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) has employed numerous strategies, including increased testing and evaluating teachers, to improve the academic performance of its students, but has assigned abysmally low priority to the physical education curriculum. The city's comptroller conducted an audit last year, which found that none of the surveyed elementary schools were meeting the state requirements.
Physical education provides children far more than exercise. An increasing number of scientific studies, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show links between physical education and a child's overall well-being. Increased academic performance and test scores, enhanced concentration and positive classroom behavior are just a few of such benefits. The White House Task Force on Obesity indicates that physical education can also increase a child's participation in after-school sports, which in turn boosts a student's confidence, leadership skills and health awareness. Not bad correlations to underline when obesity affects one in three children in New York City.
"While the DOE has begun to acknowledge the gaps between state-mandated requirements and actual compliance of NYC public schools, they must accelerate these efforts and make physical education one of their top priorities," says Amy J. Schwartz, who chairs the Physical Education in City Public Schools Task Force of the Women's City Club of New York, a group with a long history of advocacy on educational and other policies that affect New Yorkers. "It's critical that the NYC political leadership work with the public school community, take action, and recognize that PE is also critical in ensuring academic performance," Schwartz continues. "Our children deserve a healthy future."
The pervasive failure of DOE to comply with state-mandated physical education runs deeper than providing space and adequate gym time. It also triggers conversations about inequalities in race, gender and education. New York City reportedly has the third most segregated large city school system in the country. Considering a 2007 survey that tallied almost 40 percent of Latinos and 32 percent of blacks and African-Americans among the student population in the city's public schools, we must look at the impact of any policy that disproportionately affects children with limited or no access to a fair chance at reaching their full potential.
On the gender side, Title IX, the landmark legislation that opened a new frontier for girls and young women to develop their skills in sports and leadership, is celebrating its 40th birthday. Some may remember Nike's compelling "Just Let Me Play" commercial featuring confident 12-year-old girls claiming that engaging in sports will reduce their vulnerability to domestic violence, breast cancer, dropping out of school and premature pregnancy. The DOE can help children achieve these lofty goals simply by starting to implement two state-mandated hours of physical education every week.
New York State has a responsibility to enforce these mandated requirements and parents should put pressure on the DOE to publish a complete inventory of physical education curricula, time and space allocated to physical education classes, along with the number of qualified teachers for each school. The non-compliance hurts our children and compromises local and national efforts to fight obesity and other interventions designed to provide them equal opportunities.
Ancient Rome understood the importance of a healthy mind in a healthy body. "Mens sana in corpore sano" our Brooklyn Latin student proudly translates. As to the DOE, what august counsel would Taquesha offer? "School is supposed to be the place where you have an opportunity to learn that physical education gives you energy and helps you stay up that extra hour to study," she answers. "NYC kids will always be a step behind if we never know the joys of being physically fit. Exercise can't be a 'never mind' sport."