Credit: Eric Forseth/ Fallbrook Union Elementary
Fallbrook Union Elementary School District students in physical education class.

Of all the changes triggered by the Common Core State Standards, perhaps none is more surprising than an uptick in jobs for elementary school physical education teachers in California.

Back from near extinction, physical education specialists are being hired by a smattering of districts to take over P.E. duties from elementary classroom teachers, who after years of teaching physical education themselves are now being freed up for Common Core lesson planning.

“This is a win-win,” said Dennis Kurtz, assistant superintendent for the Hollister School District, which hired its first-ever elementary physical education teachers this year – seven of them. “The kids are getting physical instruction from people who are experts, and the teachers are collaborating,”

He was straightforward about the motivation for the hiring. “The teachers union was clear that with Common Core, teachers need time to collaborate,” he said. The Common Core standards ask for students to demonstrate analytical thinking, among other skills, and teachers have been developing curricula to foster those skills.

“This is a win-win,” said Dennis Kurtz, assistant superintendent for the Hollister School District. “The kids are getting physical instruction from people who are experts, and the teachers are collaborating.”

To provide collaboration time, and to reap the benefits of a dedicated physical education program, the Hollister district spent more than $750,000 on salaries for physical education teachers and aides, as well as equipment. To do so, the district tapped into the additional state revenues it received under the new Local Control Funding Formula for students, often called high-needs students, who are English learners, low-income children and foster youth.

The funding formula allows districts flexibility in spending, as long as they demonstrate that their high-needs students are benefiting from the additional spending in proportion to the increase. Because 70 percent of Hollister district students are high-needs, program improvements that benefit the majority of Hollister students meet the requirements.

Through the back door of the Common Core, some districts that for decades have been unable to muster the will or the funds for elementary physical education specialists are finding a way to hire by tying physical education classes to teacher preparation time. The number of districts hiring appears to be small and the majority of California elementary schools continue to rely on classroom teachers to teach physical education.

But the scattered hiring is a shift in a physical education landscape that is under scrutiny. Thirty-seven California school districts – which together educate more than 1 in 5 elementary students in the state – agreed to a settlement in April in a lawsuit that alleged the districts failed to provide elementary students with the minimum number of physical education minutes required by the California Education Code.

Some district administrators have said that elementary school teachers don’t have time to provide the required 200 minutes of physical education every 10 days because students need every minute of classroom instruction to prepare for standardized tests.

But when physical education specialists are brought in to relieve elementary classroom teachers, the need to keep students in class every minute seems to disappear, noted Dianne Wilson-Graham, executive director of the California Physical Education-Health Project, a network of educators. “I’ve not heard that conversation happen,” she said.

The combination of new funds and a new priority on teacher preparation appears to be accomplishing in a few districts what children’s health advocates have struggled to do – put highly qualified physical education teachers in elementary schools to help children establish lifelong fitness habits.

When the San Lorenzo Unified School District was looking for ways to provide elementary classroom teachers time for Common Core preparation, said Barbara DeBarger, director of elementary education for the district, “it was a natural ‘Aha!’ to say let’s make it physical education.”

“We really felt like the kids weren’t getting the quality physical education that a specialist could provide,” DeBarger said. The district hired 10 physical education teachers for elementary schools at a cost of about $700,000, drawing on the additional state revenue it received for high-needs students in the district.

She said the district is eager to see the results of students’ fitness, as measured in the annual 5th-grade state Fitnessgram, a series of push-ups, sit-ups, distance running and more.

The Redondo Beach Unified School District had never had a credentialed physical education specialist in its elementary schools, said Annette Alpern, deputy superintendent. “Zero,” Alpern said. “This is not something that was recently cut due to funding. There’s no history.”

This year, Redondo Beach Unified hired full- and part-time elementary physical education teachers equivalent to nearly four full-time positions, using money from a flexible state grant for Common Core teacher preparation. “We needed time for grade-level teacher teams to work together, and we decided we could get a double win on it by hiring credentialed teachers to teach physical education,” Alpern said.

In the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, Superintendent Candace Singh said that hiring elementary physical education specialists had long been on her mind as a way to encourage student health. The opportunity to hire arose during the creation of the district’s three-year planning document, known as the Local Control and Accountability Plan. Parent support for physical education teachers was strong, she said, while classroom teachers wanted more time to plan lessons aligned with Common Core standards.

To achieve both goals, the district hired four elementary physical education teachers, as well as instructional aides, and bought new equipment at a total cost of about $375,000, Singh said. To foster grade-level teacher collaboration, some physical education classes are taught by grade level. That means 80 to 100 2nd-graders, for example, are in a P.E. class under the supervision of one physical education teacher and two instructional aides.

Those class sizes concern Joanie Verderber, a past president of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, a Sacramento-based membership organization. “It then becomes not an environment for instruction, but more like a supervised recess,” she said.

“I would hope there is an appreciation of what physical education is about,” Verderber said,  “but the factor that has motivated the hiring is the need for more time for teachers to collaborate for the Common Core.”

Mario DiLeva, executive director of the Torrance Teachers Association, said he shared some of those reservations. The Torrance Unified School District funded 6.4 elementary physical education teachers this year primarily as a benefit for classroom teachers, and secondarily for the value they bring, he said.

And they are temporary hires, funded by a one-year state grant for Common Core teacher preparation. “This program is good,” DiLeva said. “Unfortunately, it’s only here as a delivery mechanism for professional development.”

That grant ends June 30. But last week, the district said it plans to continue the temporary positions using the additional state funds it receives for serving high-needs students.

DiLeva balked at what he called “a revolving door” of temporary elementary physical education teachers.

“What I’d like to see is the district saying that the physical education curriculum is important, the minutes of instruction are mandated, so let’s develop a program,” he said.

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