Students from affluent California families passed a statewide fitness test at far higher rates than students in low-income families. It’s a finding that one is regrettably not likely to be surprised at: As the Bay Citizen via the New York Times points out after analyzing data from the 2011 Physical Fitness Test, students from low-income families often live in urban neighborhoods where it’s too dangerous for children to go outside. Their families may be homeless and the majority, if not all, of the students are eligible to receive a free or reduced-price lunch. Their parents may work two jobs; there may be only one parent. Their parents may be immigrants fearing deportation.
83 percent of fifth-graders at Sycamore Valley Elementary in Danville, a well-heeled suburb, passed the test with healthy scores in six different measurements (aerobic capacity, abdominal strength, upper body strength, trunk strength, body composition and flexibility). None of the fifth graders at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in the Mission district to the west in San Francisco received healthy scores; one-quarter received scores of “need improvement” in all six areas. Overall, only 31 percent of California fifth-graders received healthy scores.
Each of the 21 elementary schools in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, where Danville is located, all have a physical education specialist. In the San Francisco Unified School District, 15 PE specialists are distributed among 75 schools. A comment from Drisha Leggitt, executive director of the nonprofit California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, rings too true: “‘There is an inequity problem with the availability of quality physical education between schools of varying socioeconomic status,’” she says. Indeed, some of the fitness programs provided for suburban students are funded through PTAs and parents, who are also able to have their children participate in after school sports programs such as soccer and lacrosse. In addition, their schools are often located near parks in stark contrast to the urban schools, with blacktop playgrounds and basketball hoops without nets.
The discrepancy in PE specialists is not entirely new. I attended my first years of elementary school in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in the 1970s and we had PE daily, with a PE teacher. My family moved back to Oakland when I was entering fifth grade. We were in what was one of the better elementary schools but still only had PE only a few times a week and there was definitely more blacktop and fewer trees.
Is the US rapidly, if not already, becoming a two-tiered nation not only of income, but of health? If you don’t have the wealth, good health seems less and less likely in your future.
More studies have linked physical activity and exercise to better brain functioning and even improved student performance. The figures from the 2011 Physical Fitness Test should be a reminder, if not a wake-up call, about how essential PE is to a student’s — every student’s — education and long-term well-being. Health can’t become a luxury only the wealthy can afford.
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