Board delays decision to change teacher requirements for physical education

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A proposed change to the Whitefish School District’s physical education policy, while intended to increase flexibility, is drawing concerns from those saying the change could result in losing teachers with specialized training.

The Whitefish School Board last week voted to table a decision on whether to approve proposed changes to the district’s student wellness policy, the primary issue being whether loosening requirements for physical education teachers opened more options to the district in hiring or put students at greater risk of injury with the potential for less specialized teachers.

Under the current policy, the district mandates all physical education classes be taught by a certified physical education teacher. A certified teacher has completed more dedicated courses concerning topics like physiology, anatomy and biomechanics and can teach grades kindergarten through 12.

The proposed changes would require classes to be taught following the Montana School Accreditation Standards and Procedures instead, which is not limited to certified physical education teachers.

Trustee Anna Deese, who also serves on the district’s policy committee, said she looks at the change as a way to provide consistency in hiring standards.

“My concern is I want to be consistent with our policies,” she said. “We don’t mention [certifications] for art, we don’t mention it for music, and we had a lot of problems with part-time music hiring. So that’s kind of where I see some of this.”

However, Trustee Katie Clarke said in her own research she’s seen evidence that non-specialized physical education teachers have less advantages than specialized teachers.

“I read 18 different studies, because there are a lot of schools where they’ve saved money by using classroom teachers to teach [physical education], so they’re not having specialists anymore,” she said, citing her research. “‘Physical education by specialist teachers resulted in better improved physical fitness measures. Physical education by nonspecialist primary teachers is of an unsatisfactory quality. Physical education specialists held significantly higher levels of intrinsic motivation, took part in more activity, had more activity level.’”

“If we’re prioritizing student achievement, I think we need to commit to hiring specialists, based on the data,” she concluded.

Vonda Garcia, health enhancement teacher at Muldown, spoke during public comment period of the meeting to emphasize the difference between hitting accreditation standards and achieving certification.

“Someone who has physical education and health endorsement has taken probably at least 100 credit hours more than someone who has just had a [kindergarten though eighth grade] endorsement. Those people usually just take one methods of teaching physical education class. I took one methods of reading class. That does not make me a reading teacher. Nor does one methods class make a physical education teacher,” Garcia said.

M’Liss Heimbigner, who joined Muldown as a part-time health enhancement teacher, said she can tell the difference between teachers with and without a full-certification in physical education.

Heimbigner said she and Garcia team-teach three classes together, and when a substitute fills in for one of the two, she feels better knowing at least half of the teachers that day are certified.

“When a substitute comes in, I’m so grateful for that substitute. You might not notice that they’re not physical education certified, but I feel it as I’m teaching with someone who’s not well-versed and hasn’t taken a lot of physical education courses,” she said. “I feel it when I’m teaching with that person, and it’s fine and we work together and we always make them feel welcome, but I know when I’m not there, I’m just so grateful [Garcia is] there, because I have her safety net, her leadership, her knowledge.”

Ultimately Clarke moved to table a decision until the board can do more research on the benefits of a specialized teacher versus an unspecialized teacher, as well as how the change would benefit the district in terms of flexibility. Trustee Shannon Hanson seconded the motion, which was approved unanimously.

On a separate matter, the board also approved a wellness policy that allows staff the option to sign out immediately after school to work out or engage in other wellness activities.

Whitefish High School principal Kerry Drown spoke against the policy, saying he’s all for physical and wellness for his staff, but the hour immediately following the last bell of the day is often the best chance for students to check in with teachers for extra help.

The board approved the change by a 5-1 margin, with board chair Nick Polumbus voting in opposition. Polumbus did not provide a reason for his vote.

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