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When PE is an elective, schools finding new ways to keep kids active

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QUEEN CREEK – Seventh- and eighth-grade boys line up at the line of scrimmage, waiting for the snap. The quarterback calls for the ball and floats a pass to his receiver in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

But this game doesn’t count for anything. There aren’t any fans cheering the boys on. The only feedback comes from Ryan Durst, a physical education teacher at Payne Junior High School.

PE isn’t a required course at Payne Junior High, part of the Chandler Unified School District, and Arizona state law doesn’t require students at this grade level to take it. But for the roughly 700 students who take it as an elective here, it’s an intense workout. Each class is an hour and 12 minutes, two to three times a week. There is no sitting down in class; it’s constant movement.

The strategy to promote fitness and health extends to lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays, when PE instructors and student teachers organize sports such as volleyball, basketball and table tennis.

With a $7,000 grant from Fuel Up To Play 60, sponsored by NFL Play 60 and the National Dairy Council, the school provides nutrition education and purchases PE equipment.

Dianne Penner, lead PE teacher, said the goal is having PE teachers at Payne Junior High promoting fitness and nutrition wellness for the entire school.

“We’re trying to get to where we’re a comprehensive PE program, which means even if you don’t take PE the whole school knows the value of moving,” Penner said. “My goal for this school is that – if not by the end of the year … if by May – every teacher for about two to five minutes during every class period will move.”

Penner said the wellness lunches are important because many students, especially girls, don’t take PE and as a result their activity level drops off. The informality encourages everyone to be active.

“They want to move, they want to play, but they’re so intimidated,” she said.

Storm Mendoza, a seventh-grader, said he takes advantage of the wellness lunches even though he is already taking PE.

“A lot of kids just go in the gym to play, just to get in shape a little bit more,” he said.

A football and basketball player outside of school, Mendoza said PE is his favorite elective.

“I look forward to coming to PE because we do all these exercises to get you in shape and we do all these fun activities like football and different sports,” he said.

Durst said he and other PE teachers at Payne Junior High are teaching students about the importance of fitness and nutrition to promote healthy habits outside of the classroom.

“The kids know we are very strong on lifetime fitness,” he said. “What they’re taking from our PE, they’re going to be able to use once they’re in high school and they don’t necessarily have to take a PE class. Hopefully what they take from our classes, they can take to their home life.”

With the long class period, Durst and the other PE teachers can build lesson plans with significant workout time and still be able to teach about nutrition and fitness.

“In class, we have 15 to 20 minutes of strictly fitness. So it’s cardio – we mix in muscular strength and muscular endurance activities as well,” Durst said. “Pretty much every class period the kids will end up running a mile before we even get into the actual game play or the activity for the day. But we break it up so it isn’t a consistent one mile.”

The PE curriculum at Payne Junior High was built around leading by example. Penner and the other PE teachers work out with their students and show them how to eat healthy.

She said the eighth-graders lead as well, showing the seventh-graders some of what they’ve learned in class.

“I think it’ll just cycle. That’s the whole thing,” she said. “You want the kids to embrace it so that they do this for the rest of their life.”