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Are Austin Teachers Punishing Students by Denying Them Time to Exercise?

An Austin school board member is concerned students aren’t meeting state mandated physical education requirements.

In Texas, elementary students must get 135 minutes of physical education per week. But students only have gym class once or twice a week – which means teachers must ensure students make up the rest of that mandated time outside of gym class.

There’s some concern there’s no way to confirm students are actually getting all their required physical activity.

In Austin public schools, students have 45 minutes of gym class every three days, in rotation with music and art classes. That means every three weeks, they only attend gym class once, on Wednesday. Classroom teachers have to make sure kids get 45 to 90 minutes of structured physical activity during class time. Michele Rusnek with AISD says the district calls it “working out for wellness,” or WOW time.

It’s about 20 minutes of structured physical activity that integrates other subjects like math or science. But this week, AISD Trustee Cheryl Bradley questioned how the district knows if teachers are making up that time.

“How do we ensure that each child is receiving that 135 minutes?" Bradley asked.

She questioned whether teachers are using WOW time as a way to punish students, by not allowing them to participate.

According to the district’s website, teachers can withhold WOW time from a student, but the student must make up that missed activity within the week. At Monday’s AISD board meeting, Bradley wondered if that’s happening.

“If it's being used as a punitive measure … they’re not going to be left on the playground for an extra 15 minutes, and I know a teacher isn’t going to let them jump up and down for an extra 15 minutes in the classroom. … Either we tell teachers WOW cannot be used as a punitive measure or something else," Bradley said.

In an interview, Bradley would not say how she discovered WOW time was being used as a "behavioral management tool."

"I was at the right place at the right time," she says. She says it's the responsibility of campus principals to ensure teachers are complying with state law.

"It has to be stated very firmly that WOW is not recess. It is a state statute," she says.

District officials say teachers must detail how they make up that physical activity in their lesson plans. And at Monday’s board meeting, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen defended the policy.

“You can’t monitor every classroom every moment of the day," she said.

Carstarphen added the only way to confirm what’s happening in the classroom is through those lesson plans and classroom evaluations.

“So many things in education – when the door closes to the classroom – is between that teacher and those students. You have to really believe in them and give them flexibility to be the teacher," Carstarphen said.

But with a big emphasis on high stakes testing, physical activity isn’t a top priority.

“In some ways it comes down to an issue of money,” says Dolly Lambdin, a physical education expert at the University of Texas. “And schools have chosen, districts have chosen, to hire additional coaches for academic subjects to try and get test scores up because of high-stakes testing as opposed to hiring more physical education teachers."

Lambdin says it would take commitment from the whole community to make physical education a priority.

“When budgets are tight, there’s always enough money for things you think are really important," she says.

Lambin says the district’s School Health Advisory Council plans to propose daily physical education to the school board later this year.

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