On the Bench

One in five students fail physical education

Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2010

During the past three full school semesters, 16.1 percent of Juneau School District Students failed a physical education class.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Fitness Concepts, the one physical education class specifically required to graduate, and which most students take during their freshman year, had a 20.5 percent failure rate. Failing even one class, especially during the freshman year, immediately puts students in a higher risk bracket for dropping out.

District administrators, P.E. teachers and students have differing perspectives about why some students fail P.E. Sometimes teens just may not want to participate. Some students say peers who don't participate are just lazy. Some say the makeup policies are too strict, or that students shouldn't have to "dress out" - change into gym clothes.

Others say issues go deeper, with many students not wanting to change into clothing required for activities in some gym classes because of extreme self-consciousness about their bodies, or because they have been sexually or physically abused.

School Board President Mark Choate said board members were aware of problems in the district with students passing physical education class, but received the data on failure rates at a recent Juneau School Board meeting for the first time.

"I'm not happy with the data, but it is exactly what we thought it was," he said. "Clearly we need to do something about it."


High school students are required to have 1.5 hours of P.E. to graduate. "Fitness concepts," a P.E. class that teaches the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle, is mandatory. The other two 0.5 credit hour classes are elective. Students can choose from a variety of classes - a little more than 10 at JDHS, a little fewer than 10 at Thunder Mountain. Classes include activities such as yoga, swimming team sports and weight training.

Yaakoosge Daakahidi offers fewer courses because it has fewer students.

Students must have fewer than 10 "make-up" classes outstanding in order to pass.

Whether or not a student is required to change into gym clothes depends on the course and the teacher.

"People say we are too strict," said JDHS Activities Director Sandi Wagner. "Absolutely not. We're asking the kids to be active and learn because it's physical education. We want the kids to learn something, learn about being healthy and staying active for their entire life."

Wagner said three semesters of required physical education is "extremely low" and a lack of support from the administration is to blame for failure rates.

Administrators and teachers all say they have the same goal: for young people to succeed and live healthier lives. They differ, however, on what might be necessary to make it happen. One requirement on which many district P.E. teachers differ is dressing out, and whether or not to give credit to those who don't.

Dressing out

For some classes at JDHS, dressing out is mandatory; for others it's not. Thunder Mountain P.E. teacher Jim Kearns gives half-credit for students who participate without dressing out. Nikki Richert, a P.E. and health teacher of five years at Yaakoosge Daakahidi, doesn't require it.

Richert said in the district overall, dressing out is the main impediment to a passing grade.

"That can be a really uncomfortable situation for kids, based on their background," she said. "If their friends aren't around, they might feel unsafe."

School Board member Destiny Sargeant, who also is a Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium psychologist specializing in trauma, said for some students, the reluctance to dress down goes deeper.

"There's a high percentage of kids who have been sexually or physically abused. ... I can almost promise you from a psychological perspective, those kids are not going to want to dress down," she said. "They'll take an 'F' any day."

According to statistics in a December Empire article, the rate of sexual assault in Alaska is two-and-a-half times the national average and the most per capita of any state. Alaska's rate of sexual assault of children is six times the national average, and more than one out of three Alaska Native women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

Many students also are "acutely" self-conscious about obesity. Some have eating disorders. Some boys are self-conscious about either being circumcised or uncircumcised, Sargeant said.

"We've had some true harassment going on," she said.

"Even kids that haven't had any bad influences in their life still are going to have body image issues getting undressed in front of strangers," Richert said.

Richert said counselors let teachers know to be sensitive. "And we know that it is prevalent in the Alaska Native community, so we do take that into consideration, especially because over here (at Yaakoosge Daakahidi), over half our population is Alaska Native."

All three schools keep a stash of clothing that students can borrow if they need to. Richert keeps five pairs of shoes in her office.

Kearns said the wrong kinds of clothing can present problems - tight pants restrict movement; skater shoes fall off when kids run or jump.

"I've had a few kids roll their ankles because their shoes weren't tied," Kearns said. "If students don't dress out, they're the ones that suffer."

He said teachers have been very relaxed about the rules, asking just that students wear a T-shirt, tennis shoes and clothing that is overall conducive to activities.

Wagner said some classes at JDHS require dressing out, and some don't, depending on the activities involved. Students who don't dress out for classes that require it don't get credit for showing up, meaning they may have to make up the class later on.

Missing class

Students can make up gym class before school, after school or at lunch. And while the district's make-up policy "looks generous on paper," it doesn't work for the very same reason that students don't attend in the first place, Sargeant said: A lack of organization, transportation or a reluctance to dress down.

Students are allowed 10 absences from class before failing. They're allowed five before it starts affecting their grade, though long classes require two make-ups.

Sophomore Deborah Kasberg said make-ups are one of the main reasons students fail.

"You have to come in on your own time, which a lot of kids don't end up doing," she said. "A lot of kids don't want to come in (during lunch or other makeup periods) because they don't want to just exercise for 30 minutes by themselves."

"They think 'Oh, one makeup, I'll do it, and then they never actually get to it," said sophomore Thuy Nguyen.

Freshman Fred Collier said gym class is easy. "It's just lazy kids out there," he said - an opinion many teens shared.

Collier added, however, that make-up rules are "a little rough," with long classes requiring two make-ups.

He almost failed after a two-week family trip made him miss many classes last semester. He finished his last make-up class on the final day available, he said.

Credit for the game?

Policies also differ on whether or not all absences require make-ups.

Kearns doesn't require students to make up class if they're on a school-sponsored trip. Wagner said students who miss class for extracurricular athletic activities should not be given P.E. credit.

"That is not part of physical education," she said. "That's great, if they're getting a workout in and playing, that's what we want them to be doing. That's what they should be doing. But if you miss class for a basketball game, we don't know if you got any instruction or activity. You might have been sitting on the bench the whole time. And athletes - P.E. should be their AP (advanced placement) class. They should excel in that. ... Do you expect more of AP kids? Absolutely."

Kearns said in his opinion, teens who play sports should get credit for it. "Honestly, those kids work really hard," he said. "Doing basketball two to three hours a night - I look at that and go 'Huh. What are we thinking?'"

Athletes can count sanctioned sports such as dance team or football toward one 0.5-credit-hour class, Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling said.

Because Yaakoosge operates on quarters instead of semesters, students are allowed no more than four absences in any class.


Some administrators say one solution might be to try to find offerings that are more relevant to students.

Sargeant also said there could be alternatives that don't require dressing down.

"With that many kids flunking, there's something wrong," Sargeant said. "You can't blame the kids any more, year after year."

Choate said district administrators and board members hope to find a solution this spring.

"Really, the whole thing is we want them all to do well," Kearns said. "There's not a P.E. teacher in town that doesn't want each kid to do well. I would be tickled pink - absolutely ecstatic - to have everyone get an 'A.'"

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