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New signs highlight an array of fresh produce at the Los Compadres Market and Restaurant. HEAC staff built a relationship with the owner over three years.

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Norwood Street Elementary

A South L.A. elementary school embraces a culture of physical activity and everyone participates

The numbers are dramatic: Despite limited resources, Norwood Street Elementary School's physical education program succeeded in raising the proportion of its students passing the Fitnessgram test from 36% in 2006-07 to 60% in 2008-09. (Fitnessgram is used by schools to measure three components of health-related physical fitness: aerobic capacity, body composition, and muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility.)

In addition, Norwood students competed for the first time in the annual Presidential Physical Fitness test, an age-norm reference comparing children against national averages. The test is conducted in schools around the country that register for the annual program. The benchmarks for these tests are substantially higher than the mandatory California Fitnessgram tests, and only students performing in the top 10% throughout country receive the prestigious award. Fifty-four Norwood students received the award in 2008-09; school officials are aiming to double that number in 2009-10.

How did they do it? Located in a low-income, predominately Latino neighborhood of South L.A. where residents face alarmingly high rates of childhood diabetes and obesity—more than one in three children are overweight—Norwood Street Elementary has inspired its 700 students to embrace physical activity as part of the school's culture. Its efforts are supported by Healthy Eating, Active Communities, a statewide collaborative funded by The California Endowment aimed at fighting obesity and developing policy changes to reduce risk factors.

"We try to create a non-competitive environment in which kids are always self-analyzing," says physical education teacher Zeph Lee, a former professional football player. "I tell them, 'we're here to challenge ourselves and not each other.'"

At the elementary school level, the State of California mandates 200 minutes of physical education per 10 school days. But studies show that in low-resource schools, physical education tends to be deficient in both quantity and quality; in some schools it may be dropped altogether. Where physical education programs do take place, large class sizes, a shortage of credentialed teachers, and no budget for equipment often mean defaulting to less-vigorous activities like running or walking laps.

Norwood's innovative physical education program is centered around the Fitnessgram test requirements, and uses games and other low-cost activities incorporating "mental strategies" to keep students engaged both physically and mentally. They are encouraged to keep journals tracking their individual progress, including recording their heart rate every day—at rest, while exercising, and after their final aerobic activity.

Lee recalls one of many teachable moments: "Coach Lee!" a student shouted in the middle of a workout. "It feels like something's alive in my chest!" Laughing, Lee explained to the student that his heart was pumping faster, that this was one of the body's normal physiological responses to exercise, and that this was a good thing.

Besides the high-energy leadership of Lee himself, two things have been key to the survival and success of Norwood's physical education program: mandatory ongoing participation by all teachers, support from administrators, and high rates of voluntary participation by parents.

Enlisting classroom teachers from other subject areas makes sense to Lee. "A lot of younger teachers are physical people anyway," he says, "and they don't mind working with me as an assistant. For others who may be further along in their careers, it can be harder. And they might think that physical education takes time away from classroom work, but really it's all integrated. English, math, science—it's all in there. Kids are writing in journals, doing multiplication, understanding calories, strengthening their knowledge and skills in many different areas."

In the course of a single academic year, after students began going out for physical education every day, one teacher saw her students' reading skills jump from just 20% reading at grade level to all but two students reading at grade level.

Not only does physical education help improve academic performance, for those who are not high academic achievers it can provide a taste of success, doing something at which they excel and motivating them to stay in school.

Parent involvement is another hallmark of Norwood's physical education program—Lee learned the value of that during his own childhood. "My dad played softball and was always active. He became my role model, and I think that's still important for kids today. So at Norwood we created a parent jogging and fitness club and have up to 30 regulars twice a week," says Lee. "And the entire school, including parents, plans on taking part in a 5K run every fall."

Along with improving their fitness, parents are rewarded by what Lee calls "the P.R. side." He takes lots of pictures at events and posts them prominently in the school corridor.

In a neighborhood lacking access to safe spaces for physical activity, Norwood Street Elementary plays a critical role in community health, both during school hours and beyond.

"We have quality before-school and after-school programs carefully coordinated by the physical education teacher and the after-school organization, A World Fit for Kids," says Adriana Valenzuela, HEAC School Sector Lead and Physical Education Advisor for Los Angeles Unified School District. "All programs work together as part of a larger school district policy on health and wellness, creating a seamless approach to instruction and consistent messaging."

HEAC supports a broad array of district-wide initiatives, including professional development for teachers and administrators on standards-based instruction for physical education; creation of a standards-based physical education curriculum guide for all LAUSD elementary school teachers; institutionalization of a structured program extending physical activity instruction into the after-school setting (the latter in partnership with the nonprofit A World Fit For Kids); and advocacy for outdoor gyms in local parks.

In addition to notable gains in Fitnessgram scores, Norwood Street Elementary has achieved record high numbers of students participating in the annual Marathon Kids Program, which calls on students in seven cities across the country to run 26.2 miles in quarter-mile increments or more in a six-month period. "But our kids and parents put in one to one and a half miles at a time," boasts Lee, "and they finished in just three months."

For more information:

Zeph Lee, Physical Education Teacher, Norwood Street Elementary School, Los Angeles Unified School District, (310) 213-5556,

Adriana Valenzuela, HEAC School Sector Lead and Physical Education Advisor for Los Angeles Unified School District, (213) 241-2575,

A World Fit For Kids

Marathon Kids