Personal Best

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Titusville is tiny. Tucked into the hills of northwest Pennsylvania, off a back road between Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the town looks like a Norman Rockwell backdrop gone ever-so-slightly to seed. Hang a right out of Titusville Middle School, cruise down a couple of blocks of aging but tidy clapboard houses, and you’ll suddenly come to the edge of town. On your right will be a bare field stretching toward the Titusville Wastewater Treatment Plant; on your left, a little drive-in with big windows called City Limits Ice Cream.

Titusville is friendly. It's the kind of place where you walk back to your car after paying for a tankful of gas, fumbling with your keys and a Dr. Pepper, and find your door being opened by a passerby — a rosy-cheeked boy no more than 5, with thick glasses and a mighty cowlick. "You're welcome!" he'll say, ambling away.

Titusville is dwindling. Its main claim to fame dates all the way back to 1859, when Col. Edwin Drake picked this spot to drill the world's first producing oil well. Soon after, the town was incorporated with 8,000 opportunistic souls. But the oil wells that attracted them stopped churning long ago.

Slowly but surely, every other major industry in the area took a powder as well. Now there are just 6,400 folks in Titusville. More than one-third of them — 2,500 — are enrolled in the local schools. And as Titusville Middle School principal Karen Jez says with a wistful sigh, "We know a lot of these kids are not staying."

The reason is simple: Jobs are scarce. "It's a unique community," Jez says, putting the best face forward. "There’s a lot of families that live in town and don’t own automobiles. They just see that as a luxury, so they walk. We have a lot of families that don’t have telephones, because they don’t see that they can afford those kinds of things right now. Half of our kids are on free and reduced lunch. But we’re striving to give them the best education. They need to be ready when they leave us."

As part of that effort, Titusville schools have given the town a fresh claim to fame: a ground-breaking physical education program that is fast becoming a model for schools all over the United States.

At a time when wealthier school districts are slashing the funds and class time once allocated to gym, Titusville has joined a small-but-growing movement in the opposite direction, investing serious time and money in a wellness-based curriculum known as the "New P.E." In the process, they're reshaping the social climate of Titusville schools.

Gym class used to be the bane of non-athletes' existence, a place where kids were often humiliated, and where social hierarchies formed and flourished. Now it's an essential part of Titusville's campaign to cut down on peer harassment.

"We're working very hard on creating a caring community across the board," Jez says. "The fact that kids are equalized in P.E. helps. We don't have as much name-calling, teasing, bullying as we have had in years past. That all comes from being a healthy being."

"Ask any group of 10 adults for their memories of gym class," A. Virshup writes in Women's Sports and Fitness magazine, "and seven of them will launch into litanies of frustration and humiliation: the groans when they came up to bat, the failure to do a single pull-up on the annual fitness test, the gruesome uniforms.

"P.E. seemed less a class than some tribal ritual for jocks to enjoy and the rest of us to endure," Virshup recalls.

In most American schools, it hasn't changed much. True, uniforms are generally out — but skills tests, competitive team sports and embarrassed non-athletes remain phys-ed staples. P.E. has been sick for a long time. And lately, it's been dying.

While the number of overweight children in the United States has doubled in the last three decades, the number of kids taking daily P.E. has plummeted — from 42 percent to 25 percent from 1991 to 1995 alone, according to a Surgeon General's report.

Only one state, Illinois, now requires daily physical education for all its students. New academic standards have necessitated more class time for traditional academic subjects — so, administrators reason, why not cut down on gym?

Three years ago, Tim McCord was beginning to wonder himself. After two decades at Titusville Middle School, he had plunged into a gym teacher’s version of existential angst.

"I was a drill sergeant," he says. "For 19 years, I taught the same way. We were your basic everyday phys-ed program. The athletes dominated. The kids who were not as talented skills-wise, or as physically gifted, basically fell by the wayside. How much good was I doing those kids?"

Then McCord went to a statewide workshop where he discovered a little piece of technology that resuscitated him — and ultimately transformed P.E. in Titusville into a curriculum that breaks down barriers between students, rather then creating and reinforcing them.

It starts with heart-rate monitors. Mounted on a band that wraps around a student’s chest, monitors track the heart rate during a workout; a wristwatch displays the results as the level of exertion rises and falls.

Using the monitors, students and teachers can determine individual target heart-rate zones — basically, the students’ ideal levels of exertion, based on their aerobic fitness at the beginning of a semester. Then teachers can tie grades to how long students are exercising in their personal target zone.

The upshot struck McCord as positively revolutionary: "Using the monitors, every kid could be successful in P.E." Goodbye, tribal ritual.

"We’d always based grades on whether kids dressed for class, how they did on skills tests, and a totally subjective idea of whether they were working hard," McCord says. "But I couldn’t really tell. How did I know whether a kid was working hard? Now, here was a way to know for sure."

Of course, you had to get them moving first — and that meant rethinking the traditional activities of P.E. as well. It would do no good to strap a heart-rate monitor on a 12-year-old who was going to spend 40 minutes standing idly around a volleyball net.

So as he plotted his strategy for buying monitors — they go for $140 a pop, hardly small change for a public school in a cash-strapped district — McCord studied innovative ways to turn gym class into perpetual motion. His research led him to the patron saint of the New P.E., Phil Lawler.

Fifteen years ago, Lawler went through his own gym-teacher’s crisis. "When P.E. was being cut, we were forced to look at our offerings and say, ‘What do we offer that’s of value?’ I mean, I can’t stand there in front of my school board and say, ‘Hey, I teach volleyball, basketball and football skills. You can’t cut my funding!’"

Determined to make P.E. a subject "of value," Lawler ended up transforming his junior high school’s gym in Naperville, Ill., into a high-tech fitness center whirring with exercise bikes, stair-steppers and rowing machines — anything, basically, that would get every kid’s heart pumping for an entire period. Now Lawler is National Institute director of PE4Life, spreading the gospel to angst-ridden ex-jocks like McCord.

"Now, fifteen years later," he says, "I’ll go head-to-head with someone from any curriculum and defend ours as the most important at the school."

Parents appear to agree. For three years running, they’ve ranked P.E. the best class offered at Naperville Junior High.

Lawler estimates, perhaps optimistically, that as many as 30 percent of U.S. schools are "moving in the direction" of New P.E. Some have begun to emphasize movement over team-sports skills, with activities like dance and aerobics.

Others, like Titusville’s middle and high schools, use heart-rate monitors in fitness centers packed with aerobic equipment. Full-blown exemplars of the New P.E, like Roosevelt High School in Seattle, supplement the fitness centers with non-competitive, sweat-inducing activities such as roller-blading, rock-climbing and mountain biking.

For gym teachers struggling against cuts in time and funding, the New P.E. can sound prohibitively expensive. But, as Lawler says, "It costs nothing to get kids walking, or jumping rope." And McCord adds, "Hey, Titusville’s rural, out in the middle of nowhere. If we can do it ... ."

It took the re-energized McCord only a matter of months — and $30,000 for the monitors and fitness equipment — to transform Titusville Middle School into a New P.E. showplace. He quickly sold Titusville’s school board on the link between aerobic fitness and all-around well-being.

The kids didn’t take much convincing. Principal Jez still marvels at the way their attitudes changed after the wellness center opened. "Before, we had a lot of girls, especially, who just wouldn’t dress for P.E. They would just come and sit in the office and say, ‘I’m not going.’

"Now we don’t have kids refusing to dress," she says, still sounding a tad surprised. "They enjoy P.E."

Above his busy desk, on a wall students see when they come into the locker room, Tim McCord has hung a sign that expresses his newfound philosophy: "Physical education is the only subject which by the very nature of its content has the potential to affect how a person will feel every moment of every day for the rest of his or her life."

With his hard jawline, flat buzz cut and shiny track suit, McCord might seem like an unlikely philosopher. But his wisdom is in heavy demand. At least 40 other schools have visited Titusville since it became the "Little P.E. Program That Could." McCord carries his success story to workshops all over the state and country.

Not that he doesn’t meet skeptics along the way. "I remember this teacher at a workshop telling me, ‘We can teach our kids a lot about the real world in P.E., a lot about survival of the fittest.’

"My response was, ‘Why is it that physical educators always have to teach their real-world lessons in a negative way? Why can’t we take a positive approach?’"

McCord has already written out the day’s activities on an erasable board. It’s a Wellness Center workout day. They’re to strap on their monitors, pick up their heart-rate watches, jog three laps and start working out. McCord doesn’t like to waste precious time calling roll and barking instructions.

"After the beginning of the semester, when they learn what to do, I become non-existent," McCord says. He’s exaggerating, of course. Once the boys have done their laps and started pedaling and rowing and stepping, McCord has a very important role: manning the boombox.

"Mr. McCord!" hollers Josh, a broad-shouldered boy who’s already broken a sweat. "You got that CD with ‘Born to Be Wild’ on it?"

"Yeah, but you have to promise to sing."

As the boys pedal and row and check their watches, McCord cranks the old Steppenwolf tune. Twenty teenage voices bellow the refrain: "Born to be wi-i-i-i-i-ld!"

A few minutes later, "Hand Jive" comes on and elicits a similar response — along with a hand-jiving demonstration by McCord, the ex-drill sergeant.

Compared to the orderly rigors and glacial pace of Old P.E. ("Everybody behind that line — alphabetical order!"), the New P.E. looks like chaos. In this narrow, L-shaped room — originally designed to store nets and balls — you’ve got 20 adolescent males in constant motion.

It would seem like a recipe for tension, aggression, boiling over. Instead, cooperation rules: The boys move fluidly, cheerfully, from one machine to the next. If they have to wait a minute, they jog in place, jump, chat, sing.

"You’ll notice they don’t hang out in groups of athletes and non-athletes anymore," McCord says, flipping through his CDs. "The kids talk to each other now. They don’t worry so much about being different."

Gym class used to be an incubator of difference, tape-measuring and certifying athletic superiority – which so often translates into social privilege outside the gym. Now, what emanates from Titusville’s P.E. classes is just the opposite. "There’s not so much tension between the groups," says John Wiley, P.E. chairperson at Titusville Senior High. "The athletes and the techies work together."

Incidents of bullying have decreased in Titusville. But with the New P.E. in just its third year, it’s too soon to measure its broader impact on the schools’ social climate.

For anecdotal evidence, you could turn to Ryan McGarvie. Two years ago, Ryan was a wheelchair-bound 6th grader who wanted nothing to do with P.E. After all, how was someone with cerebral palsy going to fit into a gym class?

"With a walker and a heart-rate monitor," McCord says, stepping out into the gymnasium where a few of the boys continue to jog laps and jump rope. "Once I’d convinced him that he could make an A, that he could do just as well as the other kids if he got himself into his target zone — well, look. Ryan’s out here in his walker, challenging the other kids to races."

"Hey, you want to see me pull myself up?" Ryan says. "I’m very good at it; I’ve got a lot of upper-body strength." With a steadying hand from Lea Roseman, his educational aide, Ryan slides out of his walker and lies flat on his belly before hoisting himself slowly back up, gripping the rails of the walker.

He checks his monitor. "Oops, too high!" he says, flashing a toothy grin. Two years ago, he couldn’t lift up like that. "Now, I’ll tell you a secret," he says, leaning forward confidentially. "Sometimes I lay down on my bed and prop up the mirror so I can look at my muscles."

Today, Ryan’s classmates include a kid with a cast on his leg, huffing away on a rowing machine; another boy with a sprained ankle is working his arms on a weight machine. Nowadays, instead of medical excuses, doctors are asked to fill out "Can-Do" lists, checking off activities injured kids can safely participate in.

"OK, thirty seconds!" McCord bellows, clicking off the boombox. The machines grind to a stop. The kids circle around McCord, unstrapping their watches, checking their times. "Today’s an 18-point day," he tells them. Points are awarded for each minute a student stays in his target heart-rate zone; you have to stay in your zone 60 percent of the period to make an A.

McCord calls the boys forward and collects their watches as they report their times. "Twenty-seven!" huffs the red-faced boy who spent most of the class jumping rope.

"Sixteen," Josh reports.

"Five," says a tall, athletic-looking kid who turns back to the locker room with a sheepish look on his face.

That’s one of the more startling things about the New P.E.: Now the athletes have to struggle. Not that they, or their parents, always appreciate the new egalitarianism.

"The only complaints we get now," McCord says, bustling back to his desk, "will be from parents of athletes who call and say, ‘My kid has to work too hard to stay in the target heart-rate zone.’ " But the point, he tells them, is that the kids who excel in the New P.E. are all working equally hard — from different starting points, with different physical histories and abilities.

"I see a level playing field now," McCord says, making a quick check of his voice-mail while the boys dress for fourth period. A TV reporter from Erie wants an interview. There’s another request for a presentation about the New P.E.

"Hey, I’m just this little podunk guy in Titusville," McCord says, punching the buttons on his antiquated answering machine. "What’s going on here?"

"Um, Mr. McCord?" A bespectacled head pokes tentatively into the office. "Did I do OK today? I mean, I wasn’t sure."

Ronnie Manzini is understandably worried. A brand-new transfer from a local private school, he just had his first dose of New P.E., and he’s never seen anything like it.

McCord forgets about his voice-mail. "Did you do OK?" he says. "Did you do OK? Hey, listen: You got a 19. You’ve already got an extra-credit point. You did a lot more than OK!"

The new kid grins and shrugs, pleased but embarrassed, then turns and sprints away to his next new class.