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Chicago Public School officials get 2 1/2 years to work out adding physical ed

Jonathan Miano/Staff Photographer/ Sun Times Media 20100915 Covenant Classical School upper school students run at the start of their physical education class at the school in Naperville Wednesday.

Chicago School Board members Wednesday agreed to give district leaders 2 1/2 years to figure out how to add daily physical education – and the up to 200 new gym teachers it would require – to the longer high school day expected to start next school year.

But some did so with reservations.

Board member Penny Pritzker said she found it “distressing” that Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard wanted to renew a “waiver” in place since 1997 that allows the vast majority of Chicago Public School juniors and seniors to circumvent the state’s daily physical education requirement.

“I think physical education is important” for both “physical and mental health,” Priztker said during a special board meeting called to vote on seeking the waiver from state officials. “I think it’s as important as the arts. It’s as important as academics. It’s important in helping young people model a well-rounded life.”

Pritzker questioned if a two-year waiver, through June 2014, was really necessary, considering CPS officials are planning to extend the school day next school year and plan to recruit high schools to pioneer daily high school gym classes. She asked for “interim reports” on CPS plans to ensure board members wouldn’t have to “wait two years to figure out where we are.”

However, Pritzker eventually joined five other board members in approving a waiver application that would allow roughly 36,000 of 42,000 CPS 11th and 12th graders to skip daily junior- and senior-year physical education. The only educator on the board – former Hope College Prep Principal Mahalia Hines – abstained, and declined afterwards to tell reporters why.

During his initial presentation to the board, Brizard said he definitely plans to make PE part of the longer high school day, but needed a waiver until June of 2014 to do so in a “thoughtful” way.

However, under questioning, Brizard conceded that a big challenge would be finding the money to pay for up to 200 new high school physical education teachers, as well as just finding the teachers.

So many gym teachers have been eliminated statewide in recent years that two years would “give us time to encourage people to go into the field,” Brizard said. Although he offered no cost estimate, Chicago Teacher Union officials estimated it at up to $20 million – something that would only add to what is expected to be a $700-million-plus deficit next school year.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis lobbied against any waiver, which CPS officials said was needed in large part to ensure 11th and 12th graders can fit in all the classes they need to graduate or to apply to certain colleges.

Lewis noted that the typical CPS high school student only gets one year of real physical education. First-semester freshmen take health instead of gym, and sophomores usually take a semester of driver’s education instead of PE – something Brizard said he did not even know. Lewis urged CPS to “push yourself” and complete their planning in time for fall, 2013 daily PE.

“This is an extraordinarily important issue,” Lewis said. She said it would help attack problems among CPS students with obesity, diabetes and early-onset hypertension.

During the hearing, Brizard conceded that “we also have an issue with our elementary schools complying with the law,” but he did not say if daily PE would be part of next year’s longer day in elementary schools.

Few, if any, CPS elementary schools have daily PE now, even though CPS has no official waiver from the state allowing elementary schools to circumvent existing law.

Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said “it is up to the local [Chicago] School Board to ensure they are in compliance with the mandate.” Fergus said the State Board would investigate if it received a complaint about any school being out of compliance but “we have not received any specific complains about schools not complying.”