KENNEWICK — Little kids are chasing each other around a gymnasium, laughing, panting, their faces flushed with excitement.
At first glance, gym class at Sunset View Elementary in Kennewick last week looked the same as it might have 20 or 30 years ago.
However, these fourth-graders had little electronic gadgets clipped to their waistbands. After they had run around for a minute, physical education teacher Paul Sinclair asked them to check their pedometers, which recorded how many steps they had taken.
"How many got over 200?" Sinclair asked his students.
Never miss a local story.
A lot of little hands shot up.
A few calculations later, Sinclair had demonstrated to the kids that they easily could take 10,000 steps during one hour of physical play.
The exercise was one part of a coordinated effort to teach Kennewick kids how to be healthy for the rest of their lives.
Three years ago, the Kennewick School District received a large federal grant to revamp its physical education curriculum.
The money allowed Kennewick P.E. classes to become more structured, resembling subjects such as math or reading in the way they deliver information, teachers say.
The grant expired last summer, but the changes in Kennewick school gyms appear to be enduring.
Need for change
Almost four years ago, Sinclair took the first step toward fundamentally changing how gym teachers do business in Kennewick.
"P.E. was scattered," he said. "Everybody had their own curriculum, and teachers didn't know what (other teachers) were doing."
Sinclair called Eric Gough, who now teaches P.E. and coaches football at Kamiakin High School. Gough felt the way Sinclair did -- physical education needed to change to remain relevant in school.
"As test scores gained traction (in other subjects), P.E. was the odd man out," Gough said.
Because of the weight placed on state tests, some kids are pulled out of P.E. to double up on reading and math, he said.
But P.E. is just as important, Gough said, particularly in light of the country's obesity epidemic. Gym class can teach kids how to take care of their bodies and how to be healthy, he said.
"It's not just playing basketball," he said.
The two men researched their options and, with the district's blessing, contacted Focused Fitness, a Spokane company that sells a P.E. curriculum called Five For Life.
The company assisted the district in writing a grant application, and Kennewick was one of 94 districts nationwide in 2008 to receive a $750,000 Carol M. White grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The grant money paid for fitness equipment, teacher training and teaching materials from Focused Fitness. And it made teaching P.E. a structured effort in Kennewick, with a districtwide curriculum that spans kindergarten to high school graduation.
Building a skeleton
The biggest change in the high schools is how gym teachers approach their jobs, Gough said.
Freshmen now arrive knowing basic P.E. principles, and high school teachers can build on that. In that regard, physical education has become akin to reading, where students learn how to sound out letters when they first enter school and analyze complex literary texts by the time they graduate.
Each physical activity is accompanied by learning how the body functions and how to keep it functioning properly.
Students might run a relay race, for example, where they need to pick up letters to spell R-I-C-E, which stands for rest, ice, compress and elevate -- the steps to take after getting injured during exercise. And teachers spend a lot more time teaching the principles of proper nutrition, hydration and rest, Gough said.
The grant indirectly changed how many students graduate without having taken P.E. Part of the revamping process involved creating a committee of teachers, administrators and parents to find what needed changing.
One recommendation was to reduce the number of students allowed to waive the state graduation requirement of 1.5 credits of P.E.
A couple of hundred students each year were allowed to graduate without taking P.E., said Bev Henderson, the district's assessment coordinator, who oversaw the implementation of the grant program. The provision is intended to allow kids with certain physical limitations to opt out or give kids with extremely challenging academic goals extra time for their classes.
But it had gotten "a little out of control," she said. "Now that we have a well-defined curriculum in place, we feel that kids need to prove they have those skills."
Students now need to test out of P.E., rather than just fill out a slip of paper asking to be excused from the requirement.
Last year, nine students in the district met the requirement, according to a presentation at a recent school board meeting.
Richland allowed about 130 students to waive P.E. last year, while about 10 students in Pasco received the P.E. waiver, according to officials in the two districts.
Neither of those districts has gone through a drastic P.E. redesign in the past few years or received the type of grant Kennewick did.
Grading heart rates
Kennewick high school gyms were pretty well set up before 2008, which meant the smallest share of the grant money was spent on equipment for the oldest students -- about $60,000. More than twice that went into the elementary schools.
Middle schools received about $80,000 worth of stationary bikes, treadmills and ellipticals, according to district records.
The fitness room at Horse Heaven Hills Middle School now has the type of equipment you would expect to see at a commercial gym. And that is exactly the point.
"When you're done with high school, how do you stay in shape?" said Tonie Reiboldt, a P.E. teacher at the middle school who sits on the district's fitness committee. "More than likely, you'll go to a gym."
Instructing kids how to use the sophisticated equipment found in commercial gyms is important for that reason, she said.
Teachers now can easily check if students are pushing themselves. Kids wear heart rate monitors -- paid for with the grant money -- and need to reach certain heart rates while exercising.
"If your heart rate's not high enough, your participation grade goes down," Reiboldt said.
And that is no discrimination against kids who aren't good in sports -- if anything, it makes it easier on them. Athletes who are in good shape need to push harder than untrained kids to get their heart rates up.
Every child must learn the importance of different types of exercise -- cardiovascular, strength and endurance. They also learn about body fat and muscle mass.
"They're active and they're learning," she said. "And they're learning terminology that I never even learned in college."
The calorie dice
Just how early students learn complex fitness concepts was apparent in Sinclair's class at Sunset View last week.
The Five For Life curriculum teaches that there are five basic components that determine a person's fitness -- cardio health, muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility and body composition.
When Sinclair asked the fourth-graders which of the components they thought they had most worked on during a particular exercise, hands shot up.
The 9- and 10-year-olds offered up answers such as "endurance" or "cardio" because they understood what the terms meant. That's because the youngsters have heard those terms for two years.
Teachers start talking to kids about the five components as early as second grade, Sinclair said. They also regularly talk to very young children about refined sugars and artificial carbohydrates, and what those do to their bodies. To keep them interested -- and moving -- such topics are taught in game form.
Teachers throw out foam dice with different bio-chemical terms on them. If the dice comes up showing "fat," students do nine jumping jacks, because 1 gram of fat contains nine calories, Sinclair said.
They will do four push-ups for "protein" for the same reason.
And teachers start the young kids on weight training. Not to buff up -- they are using minimal weights -- but to teach them the proper form to avoid injury in the gym in later years.
Did it work?
Like most grants, the federal money came with strings attached. The district had to document in detail the effects of the grant money on student learning and development.
District documents are filled with tables and graphs of "before" and "after" results on everything from how many push-ups kids could do to how many passed the written tests on fitness and nutrition concepts.
The knowledge portion of the curriculum clearly is sticking. Test results for the fitness concepts of Five For Life were 20 to 30 percentage points higher at the end of each of the three grant years than they were when students came out of summer break.
For nutrition concepts, the difference was even greater -- passing rates more than doubled during the course of each year.
Students were a bit more physically fit at the end of each school year -- they could do a few more push-ups, curl-ups and other exercises.
Teachers enjoy having such data at their fingertips, said Henderson, the assessment coordinator. They want the tests to stay in place, even now that the grant is expired. And teachers will continue to use the Five For Life materials, she said.
One graph stayed flat throughout the three years -- how much students exercised outside of gym class.
"That was probably the disappointment," Henderson said. "We made an impact on the schools and the curriculum, but I don't believe we made an impact outside of school. It's still difficult to reach the parents."