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State effort to chart fitness of students
School system preparing for new mandate
Gym WEB 1
Hayden Goolsby does crunches during gym class at Cumming Elementary School. As part of a state program, student height and weight will be documented starting in February. - photo by Jim Dean (previous profile)

Forsyth County students may want to think twice before grabbing a second helping of dessert.

Shortly after they return from the holiday break, they will have their height and weight documented as part of a new state fitness mandate.

“It will help us provide information or evidence of some additional activities we can add to schools,” said Kelly Price, Forsyth County Schools’ curriculum coordinator.

“If a school sees they have a large number of students who have some at-risk or unhealthy behaviors, they can use this information to offer more opportunities for students to be active.”

Come February, schools will begin to implement the Georgia Student Health and Physical Education, or SHAPE, Program, approved by the state legislature in 2009.

Beginning in fourth grade, the heights and weights of all students will be sent to the state each year.

The state will also collect results of fourth- through 12th-grade assessments on a physical fitness test, which will include aerobic, flexibility, muscular strength and endurance tests.

Students in first through third grades will practice taking the test, but the results will not be recorded.

“It’s a total fitness assessment. Some of the physical education teachers compared it to the current presidential fitness awards process,” Price said. “The two can go hand in hand.”

The state Board of Education will gather the results and submit a report to the governor’s office in October.

The law allows the governor to acknowledge districts and schools for having the most improved assessments.

But it’s not about the recognition for Cumming Elementary School physical education teacher Annie Johnson.

“Most of our elementary physical education teachers all have been doing some form of fitness assessment … that’s what always had been done,” she said.

“I think it’s exciting because the data can help prove the need for physical education and doing it properly.”

There are some concerns for students who are overweight or self-conscious about their size, which is why teachers went through a training program on how to handle testing.

Two physical education teachers from each school across the state spent time last month learning how to be sensitive to students.

“When we weigh children, they will never know their weight,” Johnson said. “It will be up to the parents to show them when we send home their assessment report card.

“They will step on the scale with their backs to the numbers and we will record it in a manner so that none of the other students will know, so hopefully that will avoid any embarrassment.”

But not all parents think this is a good idea.

“I don’t like that they’re tracking their weight,” said Forsyth mother Kimberly Brown.

While she approves of schools encouraging physical fitness, Brown is concerned private weight information could be leaked despite any precautions.

“Once it’s out there, it’s not a secret anymore,” she said. “That’s going to cause a great deal of bullying, I think. It will add to that problem.”

Brown said it’s important to teach fitness at home and school. But recording students’ weight, even if they don’t know their own numbers, doesn’t need to be part of the process.

“I’m not big on the number thing,” she said. “I don’t know that it’s something a child needs in their record.

“It’s hard enough on some of these kids, and then to have it follow them in their school records, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think it’s got a potential for that to be very hurtful.”

A student’s height and weight will be used to configure his or her body mass index. The students will be placed into categories of either being healthy or needing improvement.

All the data for fourth- through 12th-graders will be shared with parents in May.

While some could argue that a child’s health habits should not be a state or school obligation, Johnson said it’s too important to ignore.

“I don’t know that it’s always being done properly at home,” she said. “This year is the first year in the history of the U.S. that every single state has over 20 percent obesity. And that’s not just overweight. That’s obese.

“So somewhere there’s a disconnect. And maybe if we can educate the children, we can even train up and kids can encourage their parents to get excited about eating healthy and getting active … and it can lead to a positive change.”

Learning about healthy food choices and the need for fitness is something the Forsyth school system had been working on, Price said.

Because of that, however, older students may not take the test as seriously, said Ronnie Davis, head of South Forsyth High’s physical education department.

“Some people may think that it’s geared toward the lower grades,” he said. “But as much as you can stress to them the importance of being healthy, whether it’s their diet or their exercise, students at any age can’t hear it enough.

“Even if you reach one kid, and it changes one kid, then I think it’s worth it.”

Johnson said she’s not looking forward to all the data entry the law requires, but expects the results will support other findings that students who are physically fit perform better academically.

Schools offer health classes and physical education, but they can’t force students to apply their knowledge to what they eat.

And though students may not currently apply it to their lives, it’s a foundation for their future, Davis said.

“I tell my students it’s something I want to be able to teach you so that down the road, when you finally realize [you want to be healthier], you can revert back to saying that ‘at least I’ve heard about this before,’” he said.

He added that hopefully, they will “remember some of the small things and know the resources you can go to in order to change your habits.”