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Whatever Happened to Gym Class?.

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Ground Zero

In the war against physical education in schools, Illinois is the main battleground. It is the only state that requires daily physical education for all grades, but a state law passed in 1995 allows schools to seek waivers exempting them from the requirement. Such waivers have been way too easy to get, says Mark Peysakhovich, of the American Heart Association. More than 20% of the state's school districts have requested and received them.

"The legislation was passed in a move to return control to local districts, but it is being seen as a way to eliminate costly programs like physical education," says Peysakhovich. "We don't think the administrators who are requesting these waivers are bad people. Most of them are doing this because they are faced with very tough choices."

One of the main reasons physical education is perceived as expendable, Peysakhovich says, is that most adults have few positive memories of their own PE experience. It is a sentiment expressed by just about everyone interviewed for this story.

"In some ways, PE teachers did this to themselves," he says. "In the past, most gym teachers were there to coach the football or basketball team, and they placed little emphasis on PE classes. We all remember classes where we stood around for 15 minutes to shoot a basket, while the teacher sat and read a newspaper."

Award-winning physical education teacher John Williams, of North Carolina's Ayden Elementary School, has heard the criticisms and acknowledges some teachers still fit the cliché. But, he says, most PE teachers take their jobs very seriously and have incorporated wellness programs into their classes to teach children skills that will help them stay fit for life.

The 25-year teaching veteran has gone one step further and includes math, geography, and social studies in his classes through games the children play.

"These days PE teachers are expendable, and they know it," he says. "That is why I believe it is best to learn how to integrate curriculums and work the whole child."

While some of those interviewed expressed pessimism about the future of school-based physical education, others say administrators and public officials are beginning to recognize its value. Late last year Congress passed the Physical Education for Progress Act (PEP), which authorizes up to $400 million in grants over the next five years to expand and improve PE programs for public schools.

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