Short whistle blasts spear the winter air surrounding the Eastwood Elementary School playground on a recent Monday afternoon. Silence falls as heads swing toward physical education teacher Brad Hirsch, who is holding up a timer at the front of a starting line.
“Remember! You are not racing against each other,” Hirsch shouts. “You’re all racing against — what?”
“Time!” respond a dozen or so voices.
“OK,” Hirsch continues. “Tell each other good luck, and … GO!”
Kids run, trot or walk-run twice around a designated course, each getting a completion time from Hirsch and writing it down to compare with previous exercises. Next up, rope-jumping contests.
Hirsch encourages those lagging as well as the achievers: “Work through it!” “That’s your heart getting stronger,” and “I want to see you trying!”
A few kids complain about discomfort. Not one of them, though, appears to wish to be somewhere else.
“He’s energetic and intense, which is funny,” said 8-year-old Lyla Vasquez, after clocking the top girls’ time in the track laps. “I like that he’s encouraging.”
Nick Bryan, 9, said the teacher whom all the kids call simply “Coach” definitely believes in pushing through. But he’s also nice, Nick said, and that spreads through the whole class.
“They care when you fall down,” he said.
Sportsmanship, camaraderie and effort, rather than competitive athleticism, are at the heart of the new PE programs added to the 2017-18 elementary curriculum in Roseburg Public Schools. School district records show this marks the first year that RPS has had dedicated PE teachers for elementary schools — an exciting development for everyone from students to parents to teachers to administrators.
Elementary PE teachers have been on RPS leaders’ wish lists for a long time. The reality of reduced school funding, which stretches back over decades, meant that PE was an “extra,” like art and music. Teachers already stretched to cover the basics had to find ways to work PE into their classroom day.
Recognizing that school districts were facing challenges to meet upcoming minimum requirements for K-8 physical education, the state put aside money for grants to help school districts. Roseburg Public Schools was awarded three such grants, according to Robert Freeman, RPS’s director of human resources. He said each of the school district’s eight elementary schools was assigned a full-time or part-time PE teacher, depending on the size of the teaching staff.
Freeman said since the addition of the PE teachers, almost every elementary school principal has seen a reduction in behavior problems and can attribute it to the addition of organized PE.
“From kindergarten through fifth grade, the kids are involved in different activities than they’ve been used to. I’ve seen red cheeks and smiles on faces and instructors having a great time with kids,” Freeman said.
“Kids need to be moving,” said Sunnyslope Elementary Principal Don Schrader, who is spearheading the new program. “We’re trying to teach lifelong health and lifelong fitness, but it’s more than that.
“Exercising helps them think better, to treat each other more respectfully, and it teaches them about winning and losing. ‘OK, I didn’t win this time — but I will accept the challenge and do better next time.’ They are learning all those intangibles that kids need to know.”
In the Sunnyslope gym on a Wednesday morning, PE teacher Jamie Hummel oversees a gleeful bout in which kids use large foam noodles to tag each other out. “All your tenacity and all your energy is good,” she said at the end of the session. “But I do challenge all of you to understand it is tag. It’s a game, and you’ve got to take your emotions out of it.”
Hummel said after the class that some of her students might never go on to play sports. Nevertheless, she hoped that skilled or not, her kids will take key lessons out of the classroom.
“I want them to be humble and win with grace, or to feel OK about not getting that trophy,” she said. “They have to respect rules. And I want them to understand we are trying to work through our strengths as well as our weaknesses.”
Hummel’s instruction wasn’t lost on fifth-grader Philip DeHart. After cheering on a classmate in timed sprints (“You can do this, Dakota! Come on, keep going, you beat me by two!”) Philip said what he likes best about PE is meeting the challenges.
Sportsmanship isn’t confined to the kids. Eastwood Principal Nicki Opp said a first-grade girl took her aside in the hall before winter break to ask a question. Would the principal’s feelings be hurt if she were no longer the girl’s favorite adult on campus?
Upon finding out she’d been replaced by Coach Hirsch, Opp smiled and reassured the child.
“I said, ‘Of course not. He’s one of my favorites, too.’”