Students stampede into Bonita Springs Middle School’s gymnasium and flood the bleachers.
Staples in gym class may evoke mixed emotions in kids. There’s dodgeball, the mile run, getting yelled at for standing around… Sixth-grader Alexis Fisher embodies that attitude.
“I don’t like P.E., because you know how girls are. They don’t like getting all hot and sweaty,” said Fisher. “But the other side is I like it, because it’s really, really fun. Things that I haven’t tried, I try now in P.E.”
However, gym class may no longer be a given in Florida middle schools.
A bill calling to remove the state requirement for physical education is making its way through the legislature. Supporters say it would give schools more flexibility. But some people argue the measure comes at a time when a third of Florida kids are overweight or obese.
Like other middle school students in Florida, Fisher must take one daily class of P.E. per semester each year under the current law.
“So we’re looking at a little over 200 minutes per week,” said Diane Sherman, Coordinator of physical education & health for the Lee County School district.
The measure aims to reverse a 2008 law that first set the state requirement for PE class in middle schools. The decision to offer or require the class would then be left up to individual school districts.
The bill’s sponsor, Representative Larry Metz of Eustis, says the state P.E. mandate is unfunded. He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, but did speak about the bill in an education subcommittee meeting in December.
“I want everybody to understand that I’m not against physical education or exercise,” said Metz.
“But just because something’s a good idea, doesn’t mean we use the power of government to force everybody to do it. That’s a premise that I operate under.”
But with tight budgets and pressure to prepare kids for standardized tests, some people fear this bill would lead to more schools cutting physical education.
The prospect troubles Bonita Springs Middle School P.E. teacher Gregg Cross.
“The only kids that are really getting exercise now days outside of school are the kids in organized sports –which most of them cost money, transportation to get there, and we have a lot of parents, especially in our school, who can’t afford it or are working two jobs,” said Cross.
“So the other kids aren’t getting any exercise,”
Middle school students in Lee County leave school each day around four o’clock and get home even later. Six-grader Delfino Ballinas, who gets As and Bs, says this makes it hard for him to get out of the house.
“Pretty much right now, I really don’t have time to play at home. I have to do a lot of projects and schoolwork. So I like gym, because I just like to be here a lot,” said Ballinas.
To Cross, the objective of P.E. is very simple.
“Our goal is to get these kids in here and get them moving and try educate them on and let them see the results of exercising every day,” he said.
But some question whether that should be the responsibility of public schools.
“This a societal problem,” said Candace Lankford, who sits on the Volusia County School Board.
“Where do moms and dads fit into this component when we have their children six hours a day, and the other 18 they’re at home?”
Although Lankford acknowledges the importance of physical education, she says she supports the bill to remove the P.E. requirement.
“There (have) to be other components to this other than thinking, The sky is falling in! The sky is falling in! just because public schools want to have some flexibility in what they can offer.”
Bonita Springs Middle P.E. teacher Gregg Cross says schools have a responsibility to develop the whole child.
“You may have the smartest kid in the United States,” said Cross. “But if he’s not healthy, he’s going to have a very short life as a very smart person –and that’s really sad.”
Although supporters of the bill call for greater control, Lee County School District’s Diane Sherman says the current law requiring P.E. is not as rigid as you think.
“There currently exists some flexibility within the program now, so if a child needs the extra time for class we currently have waivers to be able to have that time.”
And kids are taking advantage of them. About one in ten middle school students in Florida opted out of P.E. last school year. Participation varied widely across the state. While every student in eight school districts took P.E., more than half of kids in Desoto and Taylor County Schools opted out to take another class.
In Lee County, where Bonita Springs Middle School is located, 93 percent of students participated in P.E.
Seventh-grader Logan Luck says he sees P.E. benefiting not only his health, but also his experience in the classroom.
“I think it’s good, because if you’re all antsy and you don’t get to use that energy, you won’t pay attention anyway,” said Luck.
The bill removing the state P.E. mandate now has a sponsor in the Senate and is pending review in the House Education committee.