A Minneapolis high school student who wants to attend an Ivy League school may need to load her schedule with advanced courses, leaving little time to fulfill the district’s physical-education requirement. A basketball player busy with his courses, practices and games may find himself in the same boat.
Too often Minneapolis students have had trouble earning their diplomas because the district required two semesters of physical education — twice the amount the state requires.
To keep PE from being barrier to graduation, Minneapolis school leaders have wisely adopted a credit-by-assessment plan to give students more flexibility. Beginning this year, the district will allow some high school athletes to skip the second physical-education class.
The change is welcome, and the plan should be expanded. It has never made much sense for athletes who are getting plenty of exercise playing their sports to have to meet the same PE requirement as other students.
The two-semester PE requirement can be similarly difficult for students who take International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses, as well as students who have failed other required courses and are working to get passing grades.
Under the new Minneapolis plan, teens with those kinds of scheduling issues will be allowed to take a PE course online. Or they can take part in a Fitness for Life option that involves developing a personal fitness plan and meeting with a PE teacher to monitor progress.
That approach began with an online course started nearly a decade ago that used a heart monitor and required students to keep a daily activity journal. It has evolved into giving students a tracking band and uploading screenshots of their activity throughout the semester.
The idea is not to waive or eliminate PE from the curriculum. Rather, the requirement stays in place, while the options to fulfill the requirement expand.
Minneapolis is among a handful of school systems nationally that offer these types of physical-education options. Districts in Ohio and Illinois, for example, allow kids who play high school sports or play in the band to opt out of PE. However, the Minneapolis program is somewhat broader-based and could eventually apply to larger numbers of students.
Allowing alternative ways to meet PE requirements also can help students who are struggling with other courses — in particular some students of color who have lower achievement and graduation rates. At the end of the 2012-13 school year, 53 percent of American Indian high school students enrolled in physical education failed the class. About 47 percent of black students and 31 percent of Hispanic students failed their gym class.
Even as they try to improve achievement and graduation rates, school leaders face growing pressure from federal health officials — and the public — to make sure young people get some physical activity every day. Understandably, opponents of changing gym requirements worry that the move will worsen childhood obesity problems.
“This is not just about teaching a concept to someone. This is about teaching behaviors,” Frank Goodrich, health and physical education instructor for the district’s online fitness program, told the Star Tribune. “The kids can be college- and career-ready, but we have to understand the value of a healthy and balanced life. This is about getting them to be life-ready.”
That’s a legitimate concern — especially when some kids spend most of their waking hours sitting in front of a screen of some sort. And for some kids, school may be the only place where they can get the kind of exercise that their growing bodies need.
Any program that excuses kids from traditional PE courses should include alternative ways for them to learn about healthy activities and lifestyles.
At the same time, one physical-education course credit should not be the only thing that prevents a young person from earning a diploma. Completing a PE class won’t make or break a young person’s future. But graduating from high school is a key step toward a productive adult life.