Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) is not only on the Council’s Education Committee, for which he served as chairman from 2014 to 2017, but was a fourth-grade teacher at PS 199 in Sunnyside for 25 years.
He remembers how there was one gym teacher who taught 25 periods of physical education but there were 44 classes in the school. So the remaining 19 didn’t get gym classes with a gym teacher but instead had phys ed in a regular classroom.
Dromm and the students would push the desks and chairs outside though the workouts were limited to jumping jacks, pushups and situps because of the limited space.
“It’s just not the same as if you have a real teacher and program,” he said. “It was a real difficulty for us to provide gym for kids.”
Other politicians shared horror stories. Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Long Island City) spoke in Albany last year saying how her child played basketball in an all-purpose room because there wasn’t a gym. “Inevitably that ball hits the ceiling and the light fixture goes out,” the Times Union reported her telling state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.
Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman (D-Springfield Gardens) told Elia that her daughter would have to move desks to the side, then exercise to a video for the “Move to Improve” program. “It was like a sweatbox,” Hyndman said.
Dromm has spoken about the importance of physical education classes for years. Though he last taught 10 years ago, he said he still hears stories about children not having enough time for gym and in some instances they simply end up watching a movie in the auditorium.
“The gym issue itself is related to school overcrowding and class size,” he said.
Mayor de Blasio announced the planned creation of 57,000 new seats in a capital plan he released in 2017. But Dromm doesn’t believe that will be enough to ease overcrowding.
He notes analysis from Class Size Matters, a group advocating for smaller classes, saying that the number of seats needed is likely more in the 100,000 range.
“Unless you build new schools you won’t be able to meet the need,” Dromm said, noting that some physical education classes could take place in the classroom. “And it’s not the same as being in the gymnasium or out on the field.”
In 2016, a city Department of Education report showed that 74,621 Queens elementary school students — just under 70 percent — did not receive enough gym time to meet the state standards.
A report released by city Comptroller Scott Stringer in 2015 found that nearly one-third of city schools didn’t have a full-time certified PE teacher. That included 17 percent of middle schools, 8 percent of high schools and 59 percent of elementary schools.
Then-Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley introduced a law mandating a DOE report on how many children were being given adequate gym time.
“Studies show physical education improves not only health but discipline and better focus in school,” she said in 2016. “Healthy lifestyle habits are developed at a young age and we have a responsibility to ensure our children are given the resources they need for a successful education and future.”
So where do things stand now?
The latest report with data from 2017-18, shows that 220 schools, about 14 percent, lack a full-time licensed PE teacher.
Citywide, approximately 26 percent of students are receiving less than the required amount of physical education instruction. That includes about 39 percent of all elementary students, 16 percent of all middle school students and 13 percent of high school students.
About 21 percent of Queens students are receiving less than the requirement.
State law sets physical education requirements for all students K-12.
Those in kindergarten through sixth grade must have PE for at least 120 minutes per week. Students in kindergarten through third grade must have PE every day. Students in fourth through sixth grade must have PE at least three times per week. Middle school students must have PE every semester. The PE time requirement depends on the students’ grade level. Sixth-grade students in a K-6, K-8 or K-12 school follow the elementary school requirements. In a 6-8 or 6-12 school they must have PE for at least 90 minutes per week. Seventh- and eighth-grade students in all schools must have PE for at least 90 minutes per week. All students in the ninth through 12th grades must have PE in high school. Students must have PE for at least 180 minutes per week for seven semesters, or 90 minutes per week for eight semesters. All high school students must earn the equivalent of four PE credits in order to graduate.
Two years ago, de Blasio said, “The lack of physical education in our schools has been a concern of mine for over 20 years.” At the time he announced a Universal Physical Education initiative with the goal to ensure every public school in the city would have adequate PE space by 2021. The announcement was made at PS 81 in Ridgewood, where students used the auditorium for physical education.
The plan focused on about 200 schools that didn’t have a gym, with the first phase focused on 76 schools that had no PE space at all. Of the 76, 16 were located in Queens.