WESLEY CHAPEL - On a recent pleasant morning, as two sandhill cranes glided to a landing nearby, a group of Weightman Middle School students lined up on the Wesley Chapel High track ready to participate in a relay race — with basketballs. "Anything with a basketball they'll do," physical education teacher Claudine Nipps said. It probably comes as no surprise that Nipps advocates P.E. as an important part of the school day, but her reasons go beyond just getting students in better shape. The health concerns for children that everyone talks about, such as obesity and diabetes, are real, and that's part of it, Nipps said. But P.E. also serves a purpose beyond its physical aspect, and studies show it can help children improve in their academics as well, she said."Get these kids moving and you will see a difference in their testing," Nipps said. Not every middle school student in Pasco County is moving, though, at least not in a P.E. class. Since 2008, the state has required students in grades six, seven and eight to attend a gym class for 225 minutes a week for at least one semester. But in reality, many students are able to opt out through waivers signed by their parents or because they are in remedial classes that take up their P.E. time. In 2010-11, just 39 percent of Pasco middle school students participated in P.E. That compares with 52 percent in Pinellas County and 84 percent in Hillsborough County. The low participation rate is largely a reflection of what parents in Pasco want, said Summer Romagnoli, a spokeswoman for the school district. Many parents decide they prefer their children spend their time in other classes, she said. Middle schools have a six-period day, and with requirements for other subjects such as language arts, math and science, there is limited flexibility for working electives into a student's class schedule. "A smaller percentage of our parents have been interested in P.E.," Romagnoli said. A bill in the state House of Representatives this year could eliminate the middle school P.E. requirement altogether. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis, who told Capital News Service that parents, not schools, should decide whether students need physical education. "I don't think parents get a pass for the health and welfare of their students. I think they're primarily responsible for that," Metz said. The legislative session started last week. Romagnoli said the school district supports Metz's bill because it would give schools more flexibility in scheduling, but don't expect any heavy lobbying on Pasco's part. "It's not one of our top legislative priorities for the session," she said. The American Heart Association is among those lobbying against Metz's bill. The association argues that reducing physical education opportunities in middle school will translate into added chronic heart disease costs for obese and unhealthy young adults. Just how many Pasco parents use the waiver so their children can opt out of P.E. varies from school to school. Weightman Middle's P.E. participation is a stark contrast to the district average. At Weightman, 394 students are not taking P.E. this year out of a school enrollment of about 1,150. That means roughly 66 percent of Weightman students are getting gym-class time. Principal Shae Davis reported that parents signed waivers for 223 of the non-participating students. The other 171 are not taking P.E. for school-related reasons. For example, they may be required to take an extra reading class because of low FCAT scores. Weightman parents are more likely to use the waivers when students reach the seventh and eighth grades. In sixth grade, just 19 students opted out through parent waivers.
Reporter Mary Shedden contributed to this article. email@example.com (813) 259-7065