When P.E. is A.W.O.L.

Date June 30, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Local News & Sports

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The neat blue and white sign was stuck into the ground at the busy corner of Armenta Street and Old Pecos Trail. It advertised a garage sale at the E. J. Martinez Elementary School on an upcoming Saturday, 8 to 2, "Lots of Good Stuff."€ What caught my eye was the fourth line:

"Proceeds to Help Pay for P.E. Teacher"€

Help pay for WHAT? A teacher? Isn't the school system supposed to do that?

Sadly, no, not when it comes to full-time physical education teachers in Santa Fe's 20 elementary schools. "It's pathetic,"€ says one Martinez teacher (who didn't ask for anonymity, but probably needs it). Exercise at that young age is critical for growing bodies to help resist diabetes and obesity, both major problems among children in New Mexico. "It's very, very tragic."€

Most elementary schools, like Martinez, have to make do with part-time P.E. instruction, paid for by the PTA, not the taxpayers. Martinez' experience is typical. For years, the PTA has been putting on non-stop fund raisers-selling candy, wrapping paper, candles-to raise the $40,000 plus (including benefits) needed for 45 minutes of P.E. three days a week from kindergarten through sixth grade.

That recent garage sale netted almost $900, up from $600 last year and $500 the first year. The PTA collected more than 1,000 items-antique clothing, bikes and trikes, books, toys and games, jewelry, appliances. One donor offered part of the proceeds from his 1990 Toyota pickup, and the school pocketed $200. Another, an art patron, cleaned out his storage room of unusual items like Victorian and East Indian paintings and flowerpots made out of hats, boots and holsters.

Depending on the PTA to supply faculty may seem outrageous, but it's also chancy. From September to December 2007, Martinez had no P.E. instruction at all because the money ran out. With the help of an individual donation of $1,500 and considerable hustling, the PTA raised enough for part-time P.E. from January to June.

What's recommended by P.E. professionals is an hour a day with achievable standards for each age group - from skipping, jumping and galloping for kindergarten to coed team sports in kickball, volleyball and basketball for the sixth grade. For the lower grades, especially, it's a welcome relief from the immobility of the classroom. "The younger kids live for P.E.,"€ says Susan Dryja, a Martinez kindergarten teacher. (Middle and high schools have always had it full time).

In elementary schools, on those days when P.E. instruction is missing, classroom teachers have to fill in, and some of them don't like it much. They lack the time, the skills and the interest. "There is a lot of tension among teachers,"€ says one Martinez faculty member, "who try to meet the academic standards and still teach P.E."€ Some combine it with chaotic recess, which if you remember your grade school days, can be only marginally successful. (Way back when, my own phys ed teacher, as we then called the job, was an elderly German man who wore a white shirt with tie and sleeve garters and put us through rigid, formal calisthenics every school day. That was in downstate Illinois.)

Before you demand to know why Bill Richardson's state can't measure up to Barack Obama's, you should know (and be comforted) that the P.E. drought is easing, finally but slowly. After an intensive lobbying campaign from parents, the legislature in 2006 provided $8 million for full-time elementary school P.E. throughout the state, to be phased in over the next four years. In Santa Fe, that meant five schools got full-time P.E. in the 2007-08 school year and five more will in September. Eventually all 30 elementary schools will be given teachers and proper equipment.

Martinez isn't sure when its turn will come. Meanwhile, according to principal Nancy Oliveras, its active PTA has come up with enough cash for next year to stretch the P.E. instruction slightly beyond the previous three days.

There was a precedent for the P.E. funding. More than two decades ago, the legislature allocated funds for music instruction, and six years ago it did the same for full-time art teachers in bigger schools and part-time in smaller. Why art before phys ed? "This town is an art mecca,"€ suggests kindergarten teacher Susan Dryja, who is her school's representative to the PTA. "I think maybe they were shamed into it."€

It should happen to all aspects of education in New Mexico. Depending on what report you consult, our state is near the bottom in the U.S. in most categories-from teacher salaries to math scores. Cheer up: in at least one ranking, Arizona was worse.

Still, with P.E., music and art in the curriculum, Santa Fe elementary schools are all set, right? Wrong.

There is the matter of full-time nurses, which only a few schools in the neediest neighborhoods now have (since these students are less likely to receive adequate medical attention at home). Martinez, for example, has a nurse on the premises on Monday and Wednesday and every other Thursday. To many faculty, it's a worrisome situation even on affluent West San Mateo where the school is located.

For Martinez students, one teacher has this advice: "Just don't get sick or hurt on Tuesday, Friday or every other Thursday."€

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