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With PE required each day next fall, it’s up to Austin elementary schools to find time for art and music

Children sit on the floor of a gym.
Patricia Lim
PE teacher Jim DeLine talks with members of the archery club in the Highland Park Elementary School gym. The gym will be too small next year for students taking PE every day.

Principal Katie Peña stands in the entrance to the gym at Highland Park Elementary School in Northwest Austin. It’s a bright and colorful room, with a mural covering one wall. Students sit on the floor socializing. Because it’s a small space, the noise carries.

“It’s from 1970,” Peña says. “The size of the gym is completely undersized for the size of this school.”

The gym has been fine for hosting the almost 700 students going to PE two or three times a week, as part of a rotation with art and music lessons. But starting in the fall, all Austin ISD elementary schools must offer physical education every day. That means entire grade levels will be in gym all at once, instead of one classroom at a time.

Children play outside on a green field. One girl does a handstand.
Patricia Lim
Highland students play outside during lunch.

Peña’s plan is to use the gym, the cafeteria and outdoor spaces for PE.

“We're going to have the cafeteria floor painted to match our gym floor,” she says. The school will also paint a concrete slab outside to match.

While principals are making logistical plans to provide PE every day, a lot of people have questions about the changes.

A state mandate

Elementary school teachers currently get 45 minutes of planning time to work on lessons while students are in noncore classes like PE, art and music. AISD wants to give teachers 90 minutes, so it announced last month it was making changes to the schedule.

“They brought in a group of principals and asked us to come together to brainstorm," Peña says, "with the intent of giving classroom teachers more planning time during the school day."

Under a state mandate, students must be active in school for a certain number of minutes each day. Students don't meet that minimum by going to PE only two or three times a week, so AISD had asked teachers to build in 20 minutes or so of movement every day. That takes up instructional time.

The new plan requires students to go to PE every day. That allows AISD to meet the state requirement and takes the burden off teachers.

It will be up to individual schools to decide how to assign time for art and music classes.

'Mixed messaging'

Andrea Williams, the principal at Pecan Springs Elementary in East Austin, says she's heard concerns about music and art time being reduced.

Student artwork on a table
Patricia Lim
Some worry art classes will be cut back when students are required to take PE every day.

“It's not going away,” says Williams, who served on the task force advising the district. “We are all the more committed to the fine arts, our scholars will still be afforded these opportunities. So, I know that there's been some mixed messaging out there, but that's not the case.”

It’s easy to see how people are confused. Right now, students have one period each day for either music, art or PE. When PE is mandated every day, where will the time for music or art come from?

The district has also suggested schools can offer a new program — like a STEM class or more library time — to free up classroom teachers for planning. Every school is coming up with their own schedule to accommodate these so-called "specials."

Some teachers are worried time will be shaved off periods where they work with special education students. Others assume students will get much less time for music and art classes than for PE classes.

Tough time to hire

Another concern with the new schedule is staffing. At Highland Park, 700 students will be going to PE in three different spaces each day. Peña says she'll need to hire a teaching assistant and another PE teacher.

But hiring in education is tough right now, with many educators leaving the profession. Peña says she's already losing staff.

"At Highland Park, we are probably one of the most stable populations of teachers and kids," she says. "And I have 15 people leaving at the end of this year, which has never ever happened.”

The district has said it will provide $6 million to help schools hire more PE teachers and assistants.

"Honestly, there is some concern that this is gonna only happen for one year," Peña says. "And then maybe they won't have the money, or there will be changes in leadership ... and then it will go away."

A 'game-changer'

Williams says she's excited about the idea of offering more planning time for teachers. She says it would allow all teachers of a certain grade level to review student data together and come up with ways to collaborate.

“We do not have time [now],” she says, adding that they often need to hire substitutes to have these meetings, which typically occur after school. "This is really going to be a game changer for our school community to be able to make these decisions during the school day and plan.”

"For me, the announcement was — 'Hey, you're going to be able to actually do your work at work instead of at home.'"
Annie Bostick, fifth-grade teacher

Annie Bostick, a fifth-grade teacher at Pecan Springs, says she appreciates the extra time to plan.

“I continue to plan lessons at home,” she says. “I'll spend a big chunk of weekends doing that, too. So for me, the announcement was — 'Hey, you're going to be able to actually do your work at work instead of at home.'”

But she and other classroom teachers worry this time will more often be used for data meetings, which she says are informative for administrators, but not for teachers who already know the status of their students.

“I do value those meetings, but sometimes I think I need to know what I’m doing in my classroom,” Bostick says. “I need to have a set plan to feel confident. And if I don't have that and I have to go to a data meeting instead that can be really frustrating.”

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Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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