Thursday April 14, 2011


On one half of the gym partition at Herberg Middle School, sixth-graders sat against the wall, waiting for attendance to be taken. On the other half, kids were moving from the moment they stepped onto the coated wood floor.

These two halves of the gym illustrated Wednesday the old and new orders of physical education at Pittsfield Public Schools after the district landed major federal funding to deal with childhood obesity. On the one side, a substitute teacher was holding down the fort, but on the other, Kevin Codey was introducing his students to an entirely new curriculum with one central message: Keep moving.

"The new model is instant activity," said Jen Roccabruna, a physical education teacher at Herberg. "No down time. It's not about team sports; it's about movement. You are sweating when you're done."

In the fall, the U.S. Department of Education smiled on the district with a three-year, $2.2 million Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant. The city schools received the eighth-largest allotment in the country out of the 77 awarded, which include four Eastern Massachusetts districts.

Along with the new physical education curriculum -- which comes from a California-based health program called SPARK (Sports, Play & Active Recreation for Kids) -- the grant is going toward changes in school nutrition, exercise equipment and tracking students' progress.

The district has dubbed the entire effort "Balancing the Equation," or "physical activity plus proper nutrition equals total health," according to Linda Avalle, the manager of the grant and curriculum coordinator for health and physical education.

Starting now, data on about 450 randomly selected students' physical activities and nutrition habits are being collected. And by 2013, high school students can expect to have before- and after-school access to new, handicapped accessible fitness centers.

The money comes at a good time -- the proportion of students in the Pittsfield Public Schools who are overweight or obese is 34 percent, which is slightly over the national (and still very high) average of 32, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Kids nutrition program Operation Better Start (OBS) partnered with the district on the grant to focus on food; this past week, OBS was developing fundraising ideas that avoid making deals with soda companies or selling baked goods and candy bars.

Pete Gazzillo, program director of OBS, said that the grant is the beginning of a major attitude shift -- but that 34 percent is a stubborn figure, and Gazzillo's first goal is to see it stop increasing.

"For me, personally, I want to see those numbers level off -- that's the first step," he said. "Then I hope to see those numbers go down over the next 10 years. It takes time to change the philosophy of a community."

Part of that mindset shift will be aided by some surprising marketing techniques: Pittsfield Community TV recently recorded a public service announcement with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees -- who is also co-chairman of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition -- imploring the children of Pittsfield to eat well and get moving.

The Pittsfield YMCA's before- and after-school programs are another partner on the grant; YMCA instructors and the 18 Pittsfield physical education teachers were recently trained in the SPARK curriculum that was on display at Herberg Wednesday.

Back in the gym, Kevin Codey's sixth-graders were speeding around for a game called "Olympic gold medal rock-paper-scissors," a hybrid of running and the infamous hand-gesture competition.

"What we want is for kids to be pumped," said Roccabruna, the physical education teacher. "It's not about one [class] period; it's about getting them to enjoy movement for life."

To reach Amanda Korman:,

or (413) 496-6243.