This story originally aired on October 13, 2012.
It was s a fall mid-morning at the South Lawrence 5th Grade Academy in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a kind of school within a school, and a row of students was preparing to learn science more efficiently…by stepping.
The daily schedule for these fifth graders includes not one phys. ed class, but three breaks during the day for physical activity, which, according to Kevin Qazilbash, the school’s principal, is not to say academics are being de-emphasized
“The first thing I always tell the parents of the students is that we have expanded the school day to about eight hours – a typical day is about six hours – and we increased the amount of academic time kids have,” said Qazilbash. “So literally for most of our kids, they go back and forth between sitting in a seat and learning academics, and running around and playing sports or dancing or step or learning a new skill in the athletic classes.”
The program at the South Lawrence 5th Grade Academy was fairly new at this point, but Kevin Qazilbash and his colleagues have studied similar programs in schools in Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. They have been convinced that children learn more effectively when they’ve raised their heart rates by exercising before climbing behind their desks.
Fifth grader Zulmary Salgado took a short break from stepping to say that although sometimes the sudden transition from exercising to sitting at a desk can challenging, she’s good with it.
“Last year we just sit there and learn, learn, learn, but this year we have like three activity times a day, which would be like two hours of workout,” Salgado said while taking a break from stepping.
“Yeah, I actually sleep a little easier,” she said, thinking about the new regimen. “I come home really tired, and then my mom works eight hours, I go to school eight hours, I come home more tired than she does, and I do my homework and I’m able to fall asleep easier.”
The teachers participating in the program leave school later than their counterparts in the rest of the building and in more traditional programs elsewhere, but they use the time during which their students are exercising to prepare for the next day’s classes, which cuts down on their homework.
“Teaching middle school before was a lot of kids sitting at their desks,” said Meghan Kelleher, who teaches science and supports the new system. “We tried to find ways to stand them up every once in a while, and here we still do that, but they know that in 45 minutes or 80 minutes, they’re going to go outside and play or play a game or some physical activity, so they’re not as antsy, I’ve found. It helps with their focus in the classroom, and they get excited to come to school, and that’s one of the coolest things about it.”
Kevin Qazilbash and his colleagues had the opportunity to create the South Lawrence East 5th Grade Academy in part because the Lawrence schools had been under-performing and were taken over by the state. Their plan is to expand the program to other grades over the next few years. Even now, the anecdotal evidence that more physical activity has created better and more energized learners in this little corner of South Lawrence is plentiful. The staff at the school believes the hard data supporting their effort will come from surveys they’re presently conducting and test scores down the line.
So does anybody have anything negative to say about the program? Meghan Kelleher and her colleague, math teacher Liza Silvesteri, came up with only one objection.
“We just hope the kids don’t start to smell,” Silvesteri said. “That’s our biggest concern. They’re sweating a lot, but we hope they don’t start to smell. We get air plugs, and air fresheners, and stuff, but that’s the biggest concern.”