Finding time to get 700 students into P.E. classes in Kooser Elementary School's one gymnasium requires some serious juggling skills.

Principal Ann Jablonski knows this firsthand, and she knows that one 50-minute class every six days is not ideal. But it is reality.

“We realized that was a problem,” she said. “We’ve looked at it and we’ve studied it and we’re trying to remedy that.”

Jablonski makes sure students get two recesses. She appealed to her PTO, which paid for a walking track on which students must take at least one lap during recess. Teachers give students “brain breaks” to move around and be active for a few minutes between lessons. The P.E. teacher uses his time with students well, and promotes citywide runs, which Kooser students have won.

Such efforts are part of a culture shift encouraged by Lincoln Public Schools Wellness Facilitator Michelle Welsch. She brings staff representatives from schools together monthly to share what works best, offers quarterly wellness challenges that include everything from fitness to nutrition to doing things for others, and works with community organizations to create partnerships.

The efforts are working, according to Bob Rauner, director of Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln, who has been tracking fitness and obesity rates at LPS for several years. His latest figures show:

* Obesity rates in grades K-8 decreased from 17.2 to 15.8 percent from 2010 to 2013. That’s lower than the national 17 percent obesity rate for ages 2 to 19.

* Fitness rates in kids in grades 4-8 increased from 68.4 percent to 70.7 percent during the same time period. Fitness rates are based on the percent of students who pass the district’s aerobic fitness test.

Rauner's research also shows a strong link between fitness and academic achievement: Students who pass the fitness test do markedly better on statewide reading, math and science tests.

“To actually see this happening is great,” he said. “To see things moving the right way -- and we have the numbers to prove it.”

The numbers have convinced Rauner and Marybell Avery, LPS’s health education curriculum specialist, how important it is to focus on fitness.

A study done at Kansas elementary schools showed a similar link to fitness and academic achievement. In that study, classroom teachers included activity as part of their lessons, and the study authors noted the difficulty of finding enough time for P.E. because of pressure to improve reading and math scores.

The situation at Kooser illustrates some of the challenges all LPS schools face.

While the school on North 14th Street has one of the fewest minutes per week of P.E., none of the district’s elementary schools reach the Nebraska Department of Education recommendation of 108 minutes a week. Hartley Elementary comes closest at a little over 100 minutes.

And none of them are close to the American Medical Association’s recommended 150 minutes.

LPS doesn’t have a required amount of time schools should set aside for P.E. classes, and large schools like Kooser face the toughest challenges, Avery said.

Teachers are supposed to get 50 minutes of planning time during the day. Typically, that happens during “specials” -- a rotation of classes that include P.E., art and music.

At Kooser, because some grades have seven classes, there are seven specials so each teacher gets plan time. But that means P.E. shares time with those other classes, and the rotation happens less frequently.

And because there’s just one gym, they can’t hold more than one P.E. class at a time, Jablonski said.

School officials are looking at ways to get around that. They'd like to use the cafeteria, but there's not enough time to move all the tables and stack all the chairs between breakfast, lunch and after-school programs, Jablonski said.

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Hartley has been able to increase P.E. time because it's gotten a larger gym and has just 370 students.

"Schools that have more gym space are just able to have gym more often,” Welsch said. “You really don’t think about how much infrastructure makes a difference.”

Rauner's solution: a longer school day.

“P.E. has suffered because of the emphasis on math and reading,” he said. “Ultimately the fix is the elementary school day needs to be longer.”

The percentage of students passing the fitness test increased more at the middle school level than the elementary school level, which Avery said is probably because middle schools have P.E. more often.

But having Welsch coordinate all wellness efforts makes a big difference, Avery said, because the number of minutes a week students are in P.E. class doesn’t tell the whole story.

Schools like Prescott Elementary -- which fall about in the middle in terms of P.E. time -- have made huge strides in wellness with a walking track, outdoor classrooms and gardens and activities focused on nutrition, Welsch said. They’ve also gotten involved with parent and neighborhood groups.

To better gauge the impact of such efforts, Welsch is compiling information that will better reflect the “fitness” of a school. She’ll track recess time, walking tracks, integrating movement into the classroom and physical activities in after-school programs.

The bottom line, Avery said: There's not one answer.

“If it were simple we would have solved it a long time ago,” she said.

​Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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