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Hundreds of schools across Michigan don't have gym teachers

By Sam Park & Amanda Rahn/Bridge Magazine • Apr 11, 2018 at 11:00 AM

For tens of thousands of Michigan school children, regular gym class is something they know exists, but haven’t experienced themselves.

Across the state about 500 schools — roughly 1 in 5 — do not have certified gym teachers. It’s a severe problem in Detroit where almost half the schools are without gym teachers, but the issue is not limited to the city or to traditional school districts.

An analysis from Chalkbeat, a Bridge Magazine reporting partner, compared data on physical education teachers to other state data. The records show that gym teachers are missing from suburban, rural, and urban districts as well as from charter schools.

Chalkbeat compared the list of all schools with certified physical education teachers to the state’s most recent school ranking list and identified hundreds of schools without gym teachers.

The state school ranking list only includes schools that have at least two years of state testing data from at least 30 students who have been tested in two subjects so it doesn’t include new schools or those that serve a high percentage of children with severe disabilities but the analysis included 2,700 Michigan schools.

Research shows physical activity is linked to better academic performance and a slew of other positive effects, yet gym class has been one of the first subjects to be cut in schools.

Grand Haven High School employs four physical education teachers. Lakeshore Middle School has three, and White Pines Intermediate School two. 

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified. That means that a school could limit gym class to once or twice a year.

“Physical education is required in public schools at all levels, but what that looks like is up to the local districts,” a state spokesman said. “In general, budget reasons prevent schools from hiring physical education-endorsed teachers, but schools also may have difficulty finding a teacher with the proper endorsement.”

Schools in Michigan are not judged by how long students spend in gym. Instead, they are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams. In response, schools have focused their resources on core subjects to make more time for instruction and test prep, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess.

In fact, schools are so focused on testing that state legislators charged the Michigan Department of Education to cut it back in 2018. The Detroit district also approved a major reduction in testing this summer.

In Detroit, at least, the schools missing gym teachers might soon get them. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there is money in the budget for every school in the district to have a gym teacher.

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