Sascha Murillo, an organizer for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, says the lack of PE in schools can be blamed on scheduling problems and a lack of thought about connections between phys. ed. and academic learning.

Adi Talwar

Sascha Murillo, an organizer for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, says the lack of PE in schools can be blamed on scheduling problems and a lack of thought about connections between phys. ed. and academic learning.

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This story is part of our series on
the emerging public-health issue of Access to Exercise..

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The City Council next month will begin considering a law to force the Department of Education to detail how much physical education each school provides—a report that would permit observers and parents to determine whether the system is abiding by state law.

Intro. 644, authored by Queens Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, would require DOE to report yearly on how many times and for how many minutes children had gym class each week at every school, whether a certified physical education teacher was involved and what kind of space was used. Citywide statistics would also be required.

The measure was introduced in February but has seen no action yet. Sources say the Education Committee will take it up in June. If passed, the bill would fill in gaps in public information about physical education in city schools that have remained despite extensive investigations by the last two city comptrollers.

In 2011, Comptroller John Liu’s office surveyed 31 schools and found that none fully complied with state law. But that audit was unable to make broader statements about PE in city schools because the DOE did not keep track of it. “Because DOE is not monitoring its schools’ compliance with the SED physical education requirements, it has no assurance that schools are providing the required physical education to its students or if the principals are even aware of the requirements,” Liu’s audit concluded.

Earlier this month, Comptroller Scott Stringer released a far more extensive report that encompassed every school in the city. It found that nearly a third of schools lacked a full-time, certified PE teachers and that more than a quarter of schools lacked a dedicated PE space. But the Stringer report was also stymied by a lack of information.

“Given the poor quality of tracking data provided by the DOE,” the report read, “it was impossible to determine whether the DOE was meeting State requirements related to PE instructional time or class-size mandates agreed to as part of collective bargaining between the City and the United Federation of Teachers.”

State law requires that kids in Kindergarten through third grade have gym daily. From grade four through six, students must have gym at least three days per week. And students in grades seven through 12 must have gym at least three times a week in one semester, and at least twice weekly in the other semester. All told, the weekly PE instruction has to total two hours.

Space and credentials are only part of the PE picture at any school; time is also critical. At PS 304 in the Bronx, Principal Joseph Nobile says he has a certified gym teacher and at least a “multi-purpose space with a wooden gym floor” for PE classes. But he tells City Limits that students in kindergarten through fifth grade only get gym twice a week—shy of the standard.

At a press conference earlier this year, supporters of the bill linked PE to better health and academic achievement. “We need real accountability as to whats going on in our schools and this legislation would do just that,” said Michael Davolli of the American Cancer Society, referring to Intro. 644. Davolli noted that one in five city students is considered obese. Amy Schwartz, a board member of the Women’s City Club, added: “It is a known fact that sufficient physical education has a link to academic achievement, higher test scores and overall wellness.”​

Stringer’s report noted that co-located schools—where multiple schools occupy the same building—displayed high levels of non-compliance with PE regulations. Besides overcrowding, physical education can be a “scheduling nightmare” for principals, says Sascha Murillo, an organizer with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Other obstacles include a lack of certified teachers and a dearth of thinking about how physical education can support academic goals, Murillo adds. “PE can get lost among other school issues.”

The DOE disputes parts of Stringer’s report, arguing that many schools do have access to appropriate spaces that aren’t indicated in the records the comptroller’s office used for its study. DOE also says it’s collecting more PE data from schools these days and notes that after-school teams provide regular physical activity to tens of thousands of kids.

“Physical education is an important part of our students’ learning experience and delivers our school children not only physical fitness, but a well-rounded education,” DOE spokesman Jason Fink said in a statement. “With training and support for schools, the DOE is bringing innovation and new physical education training for teachers so they can provide expansive opportunities for students. We will review the Comptroller’s recommendations and will support our school communities to continue to improve physical education for all our students.”

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This series was generously supported by the Simon Bolivar Foundation, funders of City Limits’ 2014-2015 Bronx Investigative Internship Program. The College Now Program at Hostos College donated the indispensable resource of classroom space. We are also grateful to New York Community Trust for supporting all our Bronx reporting.

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