Future of fitness: St. Paul school at forefront of measuring student health

By Mila Koumpilova

Carolyn Will once got stomachaches as she braced for the annual Presidential Physical Fitness Test, the decades-old staple of gym class.

But her son, a fourth-grader at St. Thomas More Catholic School in St. Paul, looks forward to the test: He logs in sit-ups at home and coaches his cousin on proper sprinting form. Will credits veteran physical education teacher Gene Parrish’s knack for firing up students — free of judgment or drill sergeant tactics.

On Parrish’s watch, the school has gained a rare distinction: In seven of the past 10 years, it was the Minnesota school with the most students who score in the top 15 percent nationwide. But last year’s award was the school’s last.

Amid growing angst about American youngsters’ sedentary ways, the test is going away after 47 years.

Experts say its replacement, the Presidential Youth Fitness Program, embodies just the gentler tack of teachers such as Parrish. The new assessment promises to shift the focus from athletic feats to overall health and from competition to personal fitness gains.

“It’s great to be competitive, but what physical education is all about is reaching all students,” said Rick Benson, an instructor at Concordia University’s kinesiology and health science department in St. Paul.

Culture of fitness

In the St. Thomas More gym recently, fourth-graders lined up to practice for the shuttle run, one of five presidential test activities. Kids took turns zipping back and forth on the 30-foot course, shuttling wooden blocks between the lines.

Holding a stopwatch in his outstretched arm, Parrish urged on the runners — “Straight lines! Don’t slow down!” — and called out their times. But when one boy crossed the finish line, Parrish hurriedly put the stopwatch away.

“Let’s try it again next week,” he said.

When the student pleaded for his time, Parrish obliged — but added: “It seems like a lot, but it’s really not that much.”

Parrish recalls taking the presidential test in junior high school in the 1960s. Back then, the test featured 11 activities that tripped up all but athletic “superstars.” The now-defunct standing broad jump was Parrish’s downfall.

He has administered the test each of his 23 years as a physical education teacher, most of them at St. Thomas More.

Parents say Parrish is a strict but friendly presence at the school. Even in winter, he greets students in front of the school in his signature short-sleeve polo shirts.

He reassured fourth-grader Maguire Murphy when she realized she was the shortest girl on her basketball team. And he has invited his son, former Minnesota Wild player Mark Parrish, to hang out with students without any fanfare.

Principal Brian Ragatz said the presidential test has helped cultivate a culture of fitness. At St. Thomas More, all elementary students have gym class twice a week and 25 minutes of daily recess.

“This test provides clear expectations and guidelines,” Ragatz said, “and our school community has risen up to meet its challenge.”

Students who pass the presidential test get to swap their school uniforms for presidential state champion T-shirts on Fridays. Banners marking the school’s presidential test awards decorate the gym walls.

Last year, almost half the St. Thomas More students who took the test in grades three through eight passed it. But Parrish also ordered special certificates for students who overcame hurdles such as asthma to make gains.

Fourth-grader Adam Holod said some kids think the test is too hard, but most understand why they should try to do better at it.

“If we never did any of this stuff, we wouldn’t be very energetic,” he said. “We’d just play video games on the computer.”

So Adam, who is “more of a long-distance person,” has been working on his sprints at home. He’s tried to improve his pull-up form. He’s even sold on the sit-ups, sort of, he said: “You get really hard in your stomach when you do them, and that apparently is good.”

Less time for gym

But in recent years, more gym teachers have scrapped the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, said Jack Olwell, a Farmington teacher and president of the Minnesota Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. A sizeable minority in the state, though, continue to administer it.

The ever-shrinking time schools set aside for physical education is a key reason, said Benson at Concordia University. The test is time-consuming. But Olwell and teachers like him also say the test’s power to inspire students is limited: At activities such as the shuttle sprint, most students can only improve slightly no matter how hard they work.

Last year, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sport and Nutrition — an influential group of Olympic athletes, physicians and experts — decided to retire the test.

Enter the new Presidential Youth Fitness Program. Its centerpiece is the FitnessGram assessment, which some physical education teachers are already using in place of the presidential test.

Experts say the new test is better at gauging overall health: There’ll still be sprints, pushups, and pull-ups, but also body fat and body mass measurements. And the program strives to put a more upbeat spin on fitness: Teachers are discouraged from factoring student results into their grades; certificates and other awards recognize student gains over their own earlier performance rather than pitting them against each other.

“It’s friendlier motivation for students who are less fit,” Olwell said.

Even better, said Benson, the new, voluntary program comes with free monthly online seminars that guide teachers in using the test results.

At St. Thomas More, Parrish said he dreaded breaking the news about the presidential test to students. The exam has galvanized the student body here for so long.

But the changes won’t diminish the school’s commitment to wellness, he said: “Maybe there are more kids out there we can reach that way.”

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