Minneapolis public schools for the first time will allow some high school athletes to skip physical education classes after discovering the gym requirements are blocking students from graduation.

The change is reigniting a long-standing debate as schools trim back fitness requirements to make more room for academics. Some school officials want to see the waiver program expanded to all students as they try to improve some of the lowest graduation rates in the country among minority students, particularly black males.

Rebecca Gagnon, a district board member, said she was shocked to learn that some students were not graduating because they did not take or pass physical education.

“PE credit is a barrier, so how can we remove those barriers?” she asked.

School officials face intensifying demands to improve student achievement but must balance that against growing pressure from federal health officials to ensure that teenagers get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

Critics warn that getting lax with gym requirements will worsen the childhood obesity epidemic, sending sedentary teenagers into adulthood.

“This is not just about teaching a concept to someone. This is about teaching behaviors,” said Frank Goodrich, health and physical education instructor for the district’s online fitness program. “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.”

Under the current rules, Minneapolis students must take two semesters of physical education, twice the amount the state requires.

That requirement alone is proving to be a big obstacle for some students.

At the end of the 2012-2013 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.

Minneapolis’ gym requirement can also be a strain for students who are enrolled in international baccalaureate programs, music classes or those who have failed other classes and are struggling to make them up. Students angling to get into the best colleges, who often load their schedules with clubs, languages and advanced placement credits, often have little time for a traditional gym class.

When the pressure intensifies between academics and nonessential classes, “people start asking, do we need it or not?” Goodrich said. “Anything that is an elective or anything that is not part of that core testing often becomes something that will be assessed more critically.”

Minneapolis joins just a handful of other districts around the country granting physical education waivers, though its program could eventually be more wide-ranging. Districts in Ohio and Illinois are already allowing students to opt out, but generally only students who play high school sports or play in the band.

Minneapolis’ version of the waiver program is currently being offered to high school athletes in Minneapolis schools who have passed the first semester of physical education. Only five to 10 students per school will be admitted into the program this year.

Pressure is already building to expand the program. Some school officials say the waivers could be an easy and quick way to close the state’s stubborn achievement gap between white and minority students.

At a recent board meeting to discuss the new Office of Black Male Achievement, Gagnon told the office’s new director that he must find ways to eliminate graduation barriers for black males.

“We have data of 10th- to 12th-grade males that are not on the path to graduate, so is there a plan to directly impact that?” Gagnon asked. Gym class, she said, “shouldn’t be a barrier. It should be a good thing.”

Completely doing away with physical education is not an option, Gagnon said in an interview last week.

One option under strong consideration, however, would be to reduce the number of physical education credits to one semester for next school year, matching the state’s minimum requirement. The district would add more gym class instruction for middle schoolers.

Tracking bands vs. gym class

Minneapolis’ waiver program does not entirely exempt the student from proving their physical fitness. The athletes can gain credit for one semester of physical education by wearing fitness bands, writing a reflective paper and passing a written fitness exam. The students must also meet with a physical education teacher periodically.

“If you play a sport, you are already covering fitness standards,” said Mike Lynch, executive director of teaching and learning.

For years, the district has grappled with alternative ways for students to earn physical education credit outside of the traditional gym class.

In 2005, it began offering an online course that used a heart monitor and required students to submit a journal detailing their activity for the day. That has now evolved into giving students a tracking band and uploading screen shots of their activity throughout the semester.

“The challenge that students have today in terms of needing flexibility when and where they take classes is not new,” Goodrich said. “The district will have to provide flexible ways for students to get this credit.”

Goodrich said students who take his online course are mostly higher performing students in affluent families.

Often, the online classes are less convenient or not feasible for lower-income students, particularly those without the latest technology at home.

That is in part why Gagnon said she favors expanding a new waiver program to all students, which may help address the needs of less affluent students or students who have failed other classes.

“Online has not worked for everybody,” Gagnon said. “PE is important but not to the extreme that kids don’t graduate.”