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Hamilton board vows to step up students’ daily exercise

Damning audit prompts better training, more oversight

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board says it’s made getting elementary students their 20 minutes of daily exercise “a priority” in the wake of a provincial audit that flagged its failure to monitor compliance with the requirement.

Executive superintendent Manny Figueiredo said the board has taken several concrete steps in the seven months since the audit was released, including providing principals a sample schedule of how to fit exercise into the school day.

It’s also provided training to nearly 500 teachers, seen almost 60 of 90 elementary schools institute “active recesses” where students lead organized games, and created an advisory team of elementary and secondary school administrators, he said.

“It was hit and miss,” Figueiredo acknowledged of schools’ compliance with the Ministry of Education’s daily physical activity policy, issued in 2005.

He said the structures are now in place to support principals and teachers who struggled to meet the policy, especially on days where there were no gym classes.

“We’re a lot more confident moving into next year after what we’ve done this year. My belief is all schools know it’s a priority, all schools have been given the tools,” Figueiredo said.

“It’s important. We hear about obesity rates, we hear about how sedentary society’s become, but there’s definitely a connection between physical activity and student achievement and well-being.”

The board was among three – along with York Catholic and Trillium Lakelands pubic – examined last year by the Auditor General of Ontario’s office, none of whom kept tabs on schools’ compliance with the daily exercise requirement.

Excuses for not meeting the standard ranged from lack of time and space to choosing to put priorities elsewhere, like literacy and other academic areas.

Even the Ministry of Education failed to lead by example: the auditor found it had never formally measured whether boards were complying and hadn’t acted on an expert panel’s recommendation to increase the daily requirement to 30 minutes – still half the Canadian exercise guideline for kids.

Board chair Jessica Brennan said trustees can do a better job of monitoring daily exercise in schools, including through a new program committee or their own audits.

She said although she and her colleagues often focus on academics, physical activity is an equally important component of school.

“It’s been my observation that healthier people learn easier, faster, retain information better, aren’t tired, that sort of thing,” Brennan said, adding the challenge also applies to high school, where students only have to take one phys-ed credit.

That’s down from the four when many of their parents went to school and lags behind Alberta and B.C., something she said reflects an evermore demanding curriculum.

“In essence, we’re fitting in a lot of other things,” Brennan said. “Perhaps the wellness side of our student achievement commitment is not ignored, but harder to fit into the pace at which we’re doing other work.”

But Trustee Judith Bishop said the obstacles to daily exercise are also physical in another way: some schools, particularly inner-city ones, have cramped playgrounds and small gyms, and don’t have phys-ed teachers for Grades 6 to 8.

She’s pushed the board to address the inequities, including through its long-term facilities master plan, a process she expects to likely take five years even with staff now on board.

But Bishop said she also finds something else missing in the current approach to daily exercise at school: fun.

She said studies elsewhere, including inNew Zealand, have found students get more active when they aren’t held back by all sorts of rules, like to not run or throw balls on the playground.

“If you create activity as fun in the elementary grades, then you go on being active,” Bishop said. “What this has got be about is lifelong enjoyment,” she said.

“You’ve got to show kids a whole range of different things, that it might be that organized sports is really the thing for you but it might also be some running, training, weights, yoga.”

West Mountain trustee Wes Hicks said he’s had “huge concerns” about only requiring secondary students to take one phys-ed credit and he believes providing fitness centres at all high schools is one way to help them learn exercise’s benefits.

He said the one at MacNab is always “packed” when he drops by to coach the junior basketball squad, so demand is clearly there.

But the responsibility for keeping kids fit can’t just fall on schools, he added.

“It’s a society problem as well,” Hicks said. “You can’t put mandated physical fitness in schools unless it’s followed up at home and it becomes standard a way of life.”

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