Schools fail on health and physical education

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

If Buffalo Board of Education members want to pinpoint two reasons why almost half of city schools are failing they can look at the district’s physical and health education programs.

The problem is they’ve been turning a blind eye.

The youngest students aren’t getting enough exercise and about 45 percent of Buffalo’s seventh graders are overweight, which does impact academic performance according to national studies.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the school system isn’t in compliance with state regulations for its physical and health education programs and hasn’t been for at least a decade.

The state Department of Education requires a comprehensive health education program for all grades and daily physical education for the youngest students.

Most students in kindergarten through third grades are only getting physical education once every six days and there isn’t a comprehensive health education program for all grades. The school system needs to hire 30 more physical education teachers to meet state regulations.

For a school system that spends nearly $750 million a year, some find it absurd that it can’t even get physical education right, let alone health education for a district that had 200 student pregnancies last year.

The District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo, Partnership for the Public Good and the Community Health Worker Network held a rally Wednesday afternoon on the steps of City Hall right before the Board of Education meeting to urge board members to act upon its recently approved district-wide wellness policy and get in compliance with state guidelines.

“It seems that the state is not necessarily guaranteeing that a lot of their own regulations are being complied with,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, the executive director of Community Health Worker Network and second vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo. “We as parents and the community are trying to shine a light on it and ask the state to actually enforce their own regulations as well.”

Bauer Walker said the Board of Education is implementing only pieces of the comprehensive wellness policy approved last year.

“We want them to implement their own policy and get into compliance with New York State regulations on physical activity and health education,” she said.

Antonia Valentine, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said it expects all schools to meet these requirements.

“If we are made aware of a school that may not be meeting those requirements, we work with the school to bring them into compliance,” she said.

Why does physical and health education matter?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has conducted national youth risk behavior surveys that found students with higher grades exercise more, spend less time watching television or using computers, drink less soda and eat healthier meals.

According to the 2009 survey, 76 percent of the students who got grades D and F also didn’t exercise for five or more days a week.  

Credit: CDC

Credit: CDC

The CDC also found that 54 percent of the students who got D and F grades were sexually active.

About 51 percent of Buffalo high school students surveyed two years ago said they had sex, which is 5 percentage points higher than the national average. Even more alarming is that almost 12 percent surveyed said they had sex before the age of 13, almost double the national average.

Some other troubling facts from the district’s 2011 high school students risk behavior survey:

  • 90 percent did not attend physical education classes daily. That’s 36 percentage points higher than the national average.
  • 34.6 percent drank a can of sugar-filled soda at least once a day. That’s almost five percentage points higher than the national average.
  • 43.4 percent watched television three or more hours a day. That’s almost 11 percentage points higher than the national average.
  • 33.4 percent used computers three or more hours a day. That’s about 3.5 percentage points higher than the national average.

There is some good news. The school system is finally in compliance with federal nutrition guidelines and it screened about 2,000 students for dental hygiene, paying for those who couldn’t afford the dentist visits.

But the Buffalo Board of Education is moving slow on making additional changes.

“They say to me that ‘We’re focused on academics and classroom learning,’ and there seems to be a disconnect that children’s basic health and safety needs are very much linked to their chances of academic success. So it just doesn’t seem to be a real priority to them,” Bauer Walker said.

Buffalo Board of Education president Ruth Ann Kapsiak said the board is making efforts to comply with state regulations but the progress may not be fast enough to please everyone.