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Gym is back — CPS moves to reinstate daily physical education classes

Kids play after class outside Armour Elementary Bridgeport Friday. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

Kids play after class outside Armour Elementary in Bridgeport on Friday. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

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Updated: February 19, 2014 6:08AM

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Chicago Public Schools will require students to have daily physical education.

The new policy is subject to approval by the Chicago Board of Education, which is scheduled to vote on the matter Wednesday.

On Friday, when the policy was publicly posted, it was met with cautious praise as parents and teachers wondered how CPS would provide PE to all its students as it struggles with a budget crisis.

“We think it’s a wonderful idea, and it’s about time,” Chicago Teachers Union researcher Sarah Hainds said. But, she added, “The devil is always is in the details ... It will be very interesting to see how it actually plays out.”

CPS did not provide many details about how it will implement the new PE requirement.

“Physical education is a key component of core academic instruction and Chicago Public Schools is taking strides to ensure that all of our students are physically literate and healthy individuals who are primed to succeed in the classroom and in life,” CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett said in a statement. “Making physical activity the standard in schools across CPS will have a powerful, lasting impact in the lives of Chicago’s children.”

Though schools in Illinois are required to provide daily gym class to all students, CPS has held a waiver since 1997 that exempts junior and senior high school students from that requirement. That waiver expires this summer. Some elementary schools have also failed to meet the daily PE requirements, though CPS had no official waiver from the state allowing those schools to circumvent the requirement.

A CTU analysis says 28 elementary schools have no gym teachers.

On Friday, questions remained about CPS’ ability to execute the plan for its hundreds of schools.

There’s the fiscal crisis the district faces and the cuts it’s made to schools’ budgets — eliminating art teachers, reading teachers and even money for toilet paper.

In 2011, CPS officials said it would need to hire up to 200 high school teachers to get the older kids in compliance with state PE requirements.

With the limited explanation of how CPS will implement the new proposal, the teachers union estimates it could cost the district as much as $27 million in teacher salaries alone.

Add to that new equipment that may be needed.

“This is a good policy with funding,” said Wendy Katten, director of parent group Raise Your Hand. “It’s unrealistic that schools, given their current budgets, can implement additional programs and [add] staff without money.”

CPS said part of the funding will come from a U.S. Department of Education grant that provides $2.25 million over three years for its PE program.

Northwest Side mom Kerry Murphy said she doesn’t know how her children’s school — the packed-to-the-gills Dever Elementary School — would logistically be able to get all 858 kids into the small gym every day.

“In theory I think it’s a wonderful idea, but I don’t see how it’s possible with the current facility at Dever,” said Murphy, whose kids have PE once a week at the Dunning school.

CPS said it will allow flexibility when it comes to where the PE class is held — classrooms, lunchrooms and outdoor spaces are all options for holding the class.

Elementary school children will have a minimum 30 minutes a day of PE. And starting next school year, all high school students who qualify will have to participate in the daily class. There are exceptions, which include high school students participating in the JROTC program and high school juniors and seniors who can’t spare the time for PE and still meet other graduation requirements.

The Healthy Schools Campaign, which has been advocating for daily PE, lauded CPS and said it wants to work with the district to implement the policy.

“It has the steps to make it work, and it’s a matter of giving it a chance to get off the ground,” said Guillermo Gomez, the vice president of urban affairs at the campaign.

At Armour Elementary School in Bridgeport, the kids have PE twice a week, parents said.

Dad Kevin McBride said the kids need all the exercise they can get.

“We have a lot of kids that are out of shape and overweight, and I think getting them more active is the best thing that they can possibly do. The more gym, the better,” he said.

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