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Parents make case for a 'free-play' PE

Parents and kids of Jacksonville Elementary School say physical fitness shouldn't be limited to endless circles on the school's track in order to comply with the state's physical education mandates.

Andy Kranenburg, an orthopedic surgeon with two sons at the school, was one of several parents and grandparents who spoke in defense of free-play recess at Monday's Medford School Board meeting.

Periods of unstructured physical activity play a crucial role in developing cognitive structure and increasing social and physical skills, Kranenburg said.

"Free play" has been taken away during some recess periods, said Julie Evans, the district's director of elementary education, on Tuesday.

However, she stressed, "Not every free-play recess has been affected or will be affected."

(Clarification: See below.)

Evans is asking parents to allow the district — and its 12 new physical education teachers it hired in mid-October with grant money received in September — some leeway as it navigates its way through the state requirements.

"We're trying new things," Evans said, adding Oregon in 2007 mandated 150 minutes of "instructional physical education" for students in kindergarten through fifth grades.

Exercise at Jacksonville Elementary has been limited to running and walking around the school's track, she said. But options such as jump-rope clubs, obstacle courses and tether ball could all be made available if the school can get some volunteers, Evans added.

"We're trying to be flexible," Evans said.

Kranenburg's sons, William and Christopher, received applause from those attending Monday's meeting when they stated their case for keeping recess unregulated.

Kids like to escape the classroom so they can "shout, scream and clown around all they want," said William. Some kids like to engage in sports, others like to run around acting out action-movie plots. Some just like to relax and unwind from the pressures of the classroom, he said.

"It is the highlight of their day," he said.

What is the point of athletic fields and playground equipment if there's no one to play on it? he asked.

"Our time! Our choice! Our time to be free!" said his little brother, to laughter and applause.

Not all children can participate in the current track exercise, said Carrie Robertson. Robertson has three children in Jacksonville Elementary, she said. Her 8-year-old daughter has a medical condition that prohibits her from participating in the track exercises, she said.

"If you choose to take away (free) recess, she'll be forced to stand there by the side of the track," Robertson said.

Evans said the PE teachers serve all 14 of the district's elementary schools and work with pupils from kindergarten through sixth grade. But creating each school's program is still a work in process, Evans said. Some schools are doing an "all school walk" in which teachers and students take walks for recess. Others are trying to set up an obstacle course, she said.

"The new teachers have only been here for three weeks. We'd like some leeway," Evans said.

The project is costing about $860,000 a year. The state grant of $500,000 a year covers the salary for 10 teachers at 10 of the 14 district elementary schools. The school district will contribute an additional $360,000 each year to pay the benefits for the 10 teachers and to hire physical education teachers for four elementary schools that did not qualify for the grant. Jacksonville Elementary is one of the district's schools that is sharing a PE teacher, Evans said.

The new teachers are licensed and have endorsements to teach physical education. Their work is geared to national standards and includes regular fitness testing of pupils, she said.

"Our goal is to help the students become stronger, faster, more flexible and more aware of their bodies," Evans said.

Andy Kranenburg said taking away recess and moving kids to the track actually decreases the level of physical activity for many children. He urged the board to form a local task force to help "map out a plan" so that recess can remain "free time" for students, while meeting state requirements.

"Let's make the Medford School District a model (for the state)," Kranenburg said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Clarification: Julie Evans explained that PE teachers are working with students in organized programs only during some recess periods.