Students practice archery. Photo courtesy of NEISD.
Students practice archery. Photo courtesy of NEISD.

School is where we learn to read, write, and add, skills we use for the rest of our life. Physical education – what once was called ‘PE’ – may be just as important to each student leading a healthy, balanced life as an adult.

Learning how to exercise, like learning how to read, can be considered an essential life skill. Physical education programs have been part of education in the United States since the 19th century, but much diminished in importance in recent decades as public schools have put greater emphasis on testing outcomes, yet experts claim that kids who participate in physical education programs are twice as likely to be active as adults as those who do not.

Not all physical education programs are equally effective at engaging students and their communities for a life of enjoying their bodies. The old model of the football coach herding students into the gym to toss around a medicine ball and do calisthenics is considered an outdated and ineffective model.

Next Wednesday at 6:30-8 p.m. UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development will host a symposium on “What’s Working in Bexar County Public Schools: Empowering Students for a Lifetime of Fitness and Health.” The panel discussion will explore some of the most effective local approaches, hearing directly from those leading the programs. It will be the first in a series on what’s working in local schools.

The event will be held at the UTSA Downtown Campus in the Buena Vista Building. Admission is free. Free parking for the event will be available in the Cattleman’s Square lot.

“It’s important to recognize students, teachers and administrators who are providing models of ‘what’s working well’ for other educators to consider for their use. In addition, the dedication of these educators to their students should be celebrated,” said Julian Treviño, senior lecturer of educational leadership and policy studies at UTSA and former president of the San Antonio Independent School District Board.

Panelists from four local public school districts include Dolly Armstrong, Harlandale ISD; Rachel Naylor, North East ISD; Linda Seewald and Danielle Housley, Northside ISD; and Roger Rodriguez, San Antonio ISD. Robert Rivard of the Rivard Report will serve as moderator.

Each of the panelists has established their leadership in physical education, earning the prestigious Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) grant. The highly competitive multi-million dollar federal grants are awarded to public school districts that demonstrate innovative approaches to physical education programs. 

It’s a significant undertaking for physical educators who are simultaneously managing day-to-day operations for district-wide public school programs. It’s rare to have more than one grant awarded per city. Six grants have been awarded to Bexar County school districts.

Linda Seewald. Courtesy Photo.
Linda Seewald. Courtesy Photo.

For each district, the process began with recognizing need. Physical education programs focusing on male-dominated school sports yielded an athletic Darwinism in which the strong thrived and the weak sat on the bleachers and killed time to meet the minimum state requirements for physical education in secondary school.

This bothered Seewald, NISD’s director of health and physical education.

“We cannot not do our jobs. That in and of itself is a fraud,” she told her staff.

In 2005, Seewald was able to get the resources to help her staff change that. She won a $1.125 million PEP grant that allowed her to introduce a “Move to Live, Live to Move” program into district schools that used climbing walls, fencing, mountain biking, spinning, and archery to motivate students and teachers. The equipment is moved from campus to campus on special trailers, maintained by technicians, and teachers are taught to embrace new approaches and teach with new equipment and approaches.

Denise Housley. Courtesy Photo.
Denise Housley. Courtesy Photo.

Thanks to the popularity of the “Hunger Games” trilogy, archery turned out to be a favorite among students. That kind of connection to students’ lives is what makes lasting habits for an active lifestyle. 

“It’s really a focus on lifetime health,” Housley said, who managed the district’s second PEP grant, $2.6 million for a “Healthy Start” program for the elementary schools.

Harlandale ISD is taking a similar approach to health basics with its Healthy Habits 101 program, funded by a $1.35 million grant that began in 2014 and continues through 2017. Lead wellness and physical education instructor Dolly Armstrong will be using everything from frisbee golf to kickboxing to introduce her students to a lifetime of activity.

Naylor, director of physical education, health, and athletics for NEISD, shares this life-wide focus. As students were leaving for college, she kept hearing that they were too intimidated to use university fitness centers, because they didn’t know how to “read” the gym. They didn’t know appropriate gym etiquette, let alone how to use the equipment.

To help high school students, Naylor used her $2.3 million PEP grant to establish Project WIN (Wellness in NEISD). It placed fitness centers at NEISD high schools.

Rachel Naylor. Courtesy Photo.
Rachel Naylor. Courtesy Photo.

Not every kid wants to get their heart rate up in a gym, and so Project WIN also expanded the district’s popular adventure and outdoor program. Students from Lee, MacArthur, and Madison High Schools actually get to test their skills in nature. They rock climb, kayak, mountain bike, stand-up paddle, and even learn to cook outdoors on a yearly camping trip.

Naylor credits her program’s success to the way health and fitness has saturated the mission of the district. Campus wellness teams are made up of administrators, health teachers, physical education teachers, school nurses, classroom teachers, and even cafeteria managers. The teams are trained to incorporate movement and nutrition into the students’ entire day, which Naylor believes improves learning.

“We’re trying to fill their wellness tool belt,” said Naylor.

Community buy-in is crucial as well. Roger Rodriguez, director of health and physical education for SAISD, struck gold in that respect with the zumba classes initially funded through the district’s $1.5 million PEP grant in 2011. This was actually the second PEP grant for SAISD. The 2004 grant, $1.25 million for Project Escape, was the first-ever in Bexar County.

It was the PE3: Mind, Body, Spirit program funded by the 2011 grant that really resonated with the community. Campuses across the district continue to hold classes for students, parents and faculty, that have seen remarkable success.

Roger Rodriguez. Courtesy Photo.
Roger Rodriguez. Courtesy Photo.

“They were dedicated and they enjoyed it,” said Rodriguez in a 2013 interview with The Rivard Report.

SAISD also used its grant to put pedometers and heart rate monitors in classrooms to reinforce the principles that students learned in health classes, and to keep fitness on their minds throughout the day.

As in all disciplines, handing over dry, laborious activities kills the joy for many kids. Running laps and jumping jacks will appeal to the naturally active kids who would rather bounce than sit. However, when compared to gaming and watching television, many kids will begin to associate physical activity with tedious, painful tasks, rather than gratifying, accessible play. 

Likewise, those who are channeled away from their more athletic peers, like kids who are told that they are “bad at math,” are likely to develop an aversion to physical activity as well, seeing it as a source or shame or embarrassment.

Creativity and relevance in physical education programs is crucial as we fight against childhood obesity rates that constitute a national epidemic.

Students pose for a photo in kayaks. Photo courtesy of NEISD.
Students pose for a photo in kayaks. Photo courtesy of NEISD.

“We’re not glorified recess,” Naylor said.

Our bodies are designed to move, but we can’t take for granted that kids will figure out enjoyable ways to implement that design. Like all other skills, they need to be taught and guided to the myriad of fun activities available through dance, sport, and recreation.

*Featured/top image: Students practice archery.  Photo courtesy of NEISD. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.