Updated June 18 with legislative changes and clarifications from the office of Sen. Jean Fuller.
High school freshman Jenna Culotta, 14, has a cowboy hat, a bay mare named Scarlett and a talent for rodeo barrel racing, which means she rides Scarlett like a race car driver around a three-barrel loop. What Jenna would like, please – rodeo riders must strive to be well-mannered, according to the National High School Rodeo Association rule book – is a physical education exemption for the hours of practice that have made her a barrel race contender.
The idea is anathema to physical education teachers. Barrel racing, goat tying and bull riding aren’t interscholastic sports, they say,
and rodeo competitors aren’t coached by school coaches or supervised by school supervisors. “How in the world can you consider having something that is totally out of a school district’s ability to oversee get credit?” said Keith Johannes, legislative analyst for the Sacramento-based California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, a membership organization for physical education teachers.
“That physical education matters so little that they would not even care to see what’s going on…,” Johannes said. “It is the ultimate put-down for physical education.”
“I ask you today to look in their eyes to see if we, as adults, should limit them in any way,” said Sen. Jean Fuller of high school rodeo competitors.
But this is the West. California ranks third in the nation in the number of high school rodeo riders, trailing Texas and Idaho, although the number is small – just 595 California high school students are registered with the National High School Rodeo Association. “It’s a dying sport,” said Christie Baute, an Agua Dulce parent of two rodeo contestants, including her daughter Madison, 14. “And those of us who are involved are passionate about it.”
Now the riders’ quest to be exempted from physical education requirements, and the privileges such exemption would bring, has captured the attention of state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield. (Update: While Fuller’s office has stated that the bill would give physical education credit to rodeo riders, the bill would actually “exempt” rodeo riders from high school physical education. The difference is that an exemption allows students to opt out of state-required physical education curriculum and assessments. Also, Fuller’s office said on June 18 it will be changing the language of the bill to state that rodeo competitors would be exempt from physical education only after freshman year.)
Fuller, who said she grew up in the small Kern County town of Shafter where her No. 1 hobby was a horse, is the author of Senate Bill 138, which would clarify to local school boards that they are free to award a high school physical education exemption to rodeo competitors, if they would like to do so.
Rodeo competitors say the bill would give them the cherished perquisites enjoyed by other high school athletes who receive a physical education exemption for their sports: the right to opt out of some of the state graduation requirement of two years of physical education instruction; time in their school schedules (because they’re not enrolled in physical education) to take other requirements or study halls; and, most important, an “allowed absence” when they leave school early to travel to far-away rodeos.
The bill passed the Senate and is scheduled for a July 1 hearing in the Assembly Education Committee.
Fuller, at a Senate Education Committee hearing this spring, said a group of high school rodeo competitors approached her in Bishop last year and asked her to bring the bill forward. Their intelligence, fitness and ambition to reach the top of the high school rodeo world impressed her, she said. In the gallery of the hearing room sat about a dozen high school rodeo competitors, in cowboy hats and Western yoke-style shirts.
“I ask you today to look in their eyes to see if we, as adults, should limit them in any way,” Fuller said.
At the hearing, Cindy Lederer, a 35-year veteran teacher of physical education and a representative of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, voiced the group’s “extreme opposition” to the bill.
“California was the first state to mandate physical education minutes at all levels,” Lederer said. “However, those minutes are disappearing, due to the House and Senate who are constantly creating exemptions and passing bills like this one.”
Technically, school boards already have the right to grant physical education credit to rodeo competitors or any other event it deemed met the required P.E. minutes and curriculum. In the Stanislaus County city of Oakdale, where its official slogan is “Cowboy Capital of the World,” Oakdale High School has recognized rodeo as a sport for 20 years, said Leandra Spence, adviser to the Oakdale High School rodeo club, at the hearing. But Fuller said school boards would feel more comfortable if rodeo were specifically named in the exemption regulations, just as Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and marching band are named as activities that can earn physical education credit.
Stephanie Nabors, who raised three high school rodeo competitors in Mariposa, one of whom is now a member of the Fresno State University rodeo team, said, “I would like them to be treated like any other athlete.” When her daughters missed school on Fridays for a rodeo, they had to take time during the rodeo to complete a written assignment about physical education to pick up the credit.
“These kids are working their butts off,” Nabors said. “It’s 110 degrees. They shouldn’t have to sit down and write a two-page essay because they’re not in a one-hour P.E. class.”
“I think it would help,” Jenna said of receiving a physical education exemption for her rodeo practices and competitions. She said she would use the time for homework, which would be useful in the fall when she is a freshman at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, part of the William S. Hart Union High School District.
Yet even if the bill becomes law, the decision to grant a physical education exemption will remain up to the local school board. Jeff Hallman, athletic director of Saugus High School, said he’d never heard of physical education exemption for rodeo riders.
“Our district has guidelines about who is able to get out of physical education,” Hallman said. “Unless you’re a world-class athlete going to the Olympics kind of person, you’re probably not going to get out of P.E.”