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Spokane - Washington: Back to School Spotlight

Cowan believed PE could be more than dodgeball and floor-hockey.

She rallied the district’s teachers to develop a written curriculum rooted in fitness and health concepts. Lessons on anatomy, nutrition, and fitness are taught in tandem with fun and motivating activities.“It becomes seamless, and content becomes very infused with movement.”

Kids learn how their bodies work as they play using innovative technology. Students learn to use a variety of technologies such as heart rate monitors and pedometers to measure activity levels and set individualized fitness goals.
Fitness-oriented activities are favored over traditional, skill-based PE class. Students rotate between fitness workouts and activities that reinforce active lifestyle habits, such as tennis, bicycling, Frisbee and rock climbing.

She sought out fitness equipment, from step boxes to cardiovascular machines. Middle schools have equipment such as stretch bands, step boxes and dumbbells, while high schools have fitness rooms with various exercise machines. Many elementary schools have rock-climbing walls. The equipment-heavy program was funded primarily by a federal Physical Education Program grant.

Making it work, in the boiler room or an art studio.

Obsolescent spaces were converted into fitness centers at existing schools. “We’ve put fitness centers on stages, in equipment rooms, in old boiler rooms, into old art rooms--the facilities didn’t lend themselves to having those kinds of environments.”

School gyms are adjacent to dedicated classrooms for instruction
. Cowan visualized teaching fitness activities and health content all within one area. “If we’re teaching heart rate monitors, kids can get the lesson in a classroom, then go next door to use them in PE class. Then kids can understand why the lesson is so critical to their life.”

Her ideas bucked traditional models, and sometimes she was a lone voice. “The gym was always there. Now the fitness center, the classrooms close by, are starting to be looked at as essential…Now administration and faculty are thinking about it—they fight for it too. Usually its just me alone.”

Little steps, big changes.

Kids are getting off the bus and onto their feet. “We interviewed some students, and a North Central student said that it really impacted him. He was now riding his skateboard to school or jogging, and he used to take a bus. We’re definitely seeing a change in kids, they certainly are more aware…In focus groups kids are saying they are more active.”

Students are responding to the individualized methods of fitness instruction. Tools such as heart rate monitors are an equalizer for students, demonstrating to overweight or out of shape kids that, while they may be running slower, they’re working just as hard as their more athletic peers.

It started six years ago in one pilot school. Now, reach is district-wide. Some 29,000 students in Spokane’s more than 50 elementary, middle and high schools are participating at some level in Cowan’s fitness approach to PE. “The one thing that isn’t real equal is the infusion of equipment,” says Cowan, who says that 1/3 of schools still don’t have fitness machines.

Heart rates, body composition, blood pressure are familiar to students. “Our middle and high school students do a health profile, not traditional fitness testing. They’re doing exercise recovery and resting heart rate, body composition, blood pressure, strength test, flexibility…They start to think about what is their plan for life, what do I like to do, what am I eating, and begin to build a plan for themselves.”

“You can start with almost nothing.”

Funding sped things along. But Cowan says it was happening anyway. “The PEP grant allowed us to institute changes, but I was starting to do it anyway. You can still do it; it just makes it happen a lot faster. We had people making dumbbells out of PVC pipe and sand. You can start with almost nothing.”

Build a solid curriculum before buying equipment. “Central to the whole process is that you have to begin the planning at the curriculum level. If you just buy equipment without developing a systematic approach, it won’t be successful. Curriculum not only gives you that focus of what you will practice, it really changes what kids know and are able to do.”

For more information on Spokane Public Schools and Karen Cowan, visit:

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