Brighton Beach School Leads the Way for Fitness Outside of the Gym

Jamee Schleifer

PHOTO BY KRISTEN KIRALY: Jamee Schleifer teaches second graders at P.S. 253 in Brooklyn

As the doors to room 219 open, the sound of third graders “bouncing” and “scooting” overpowers the voice of Beyoncé. Twenty-two children have their eyes fixed on the dance instructor, who is simultaneously relaying dance steps while jumping herself. This is Jamee Schleifer’s dance studio at New York City’s Public School 253. A rarity among elementary schools, this dance studio is doing more than simply teaching students how to move. P.S. 253 is paving the way for incorporating physical activity in classes other than physical education.

“I’m giving my students a taste for what dance is, I’m putting that seed in them,” says Schleifer. “I’m not necessarily trying to make them dancers, but hopefully it will be a part of their lives in some form.”

Approximately 20 percent of children ages six to eleven are obese in the United States, according to the 2008 National Health and Examination Survey. New York City has some of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country. While some schools are struggling to find ways to keep students active during the day, P.S. 253 in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, has incorporated fitness into their arts curriculum.

“A few years ago, we realized that the students were not exposed to enough physical activity during the day,” says Lisa Speroni, the principal at P.S. 253: the Magnet School of Multicultural Humanities. “We tried to think of a way to incorporate fitness into more than just physical education classes, and a dance studio was the perfect outlet.”

In 2009, with support from the school and a generous donation from New York City Council Member Michael Nelson, who represents Brighton Beach, “3D Dance Company (Dance, Dedication, Diversity)” was born. What appears as a regular classroom from the outside is actually a fully equipped dance studio, with a wooden dance floor, ballet bars and two mirrored walls framed by deep red curtains. On one wall a Chinese proverb–  “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”– and on another, a vibrant Michael Jackson poster hangs.

Schleifer, who teaches first through fifth graders at P.S. 253, has designed the dance curriculum to expose students to a variety of dance styles. After three minutes of yoga at the beginning of class, the students do not stop moving until the end of the period.

Jamee Schleifer

PHOTO BY KRISTEN KIRALY: The two-year-old dance studio at P.S. 253

“You need to hear the rhythm,” Schleifer instructs the class. She points to a poster with the headline “Let’s Move.” “We’re going to say it and do it. Ready? Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, scoot, scoot, scoot, scoot.”

Thirty minutes later, the dance studio is no longer filled with the sounds of Beyoncé but the students’ heavy breathing instead.

“My dance classes are a workout for the kids,” says Schleifer. “I try to keep them moving and I drill them so that they develop muscle memory.”

Obesity puts individuals at risk for a number of other health issues including high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Children need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day to grow up to a healthy weight, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As far back as 2004, the city deemed childhood obesity a public health concern that must be addressed by the school system, issuing a study on the issue conducted by the Department of Health and Hygiene and the Department of Education.

At the time of the study, 24 percent of New York City elementary school students were obese. That is 100,000 kids who were at or above the 95th percentile for the average body mass index (BMI) of their age group. Another 19 percent of children were overweight, placing them at or above the 85th percentile for BMI.

The overall obesity rate in the United States is climbing. No state had an obesity rate greater than 14 percent in 1985, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, every state had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 20 percent.

President Barack Obama’s administration has set a goal of ending the childhood obesity epidemic within one generation. First Lady Michelle Obama has established “Let’s Move,” a campaign that encourages kids to be physically active, both in and out of school.

“Child obesity in New York City is so much of a problem that in 2005, the Department of Education began collecting data and reporting to parents on children’s body mass and fitness,” says Meryle Weinstein, the Assistant Director at New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, and co-investigator in the study The Impact of School Food Policy on Childhood Obesity. “Fitness and physical education are important in the school curriculum for a number of reasons, but very importantly to help combat obesity.”

New York State mandates that elementary school students participate in a minimum of 120 minutes of physical education each week. Students in grades one through three must attend physical education classes every day, while students in grades four through six should meet three times per week. That doesn’t always happen, according to parents across the city.

“Physical education and physical fitness are dramatically undervalued and under promoted in schools,” say Doug Sklar, a former New York City physical education teacher who now owns a personal training business in the city and is finishing up a Masters degree in exercise science and health promotion. “Kids today are advancing academically, but physically, they’re regressing.”

According to Sklar, about one-third of a 30 minute gym class can be wasted with administrative or disciplinary issues. “Ironically, that matches the overall obesity rate in America,” he added.

The efforts at P.S. 253 stand out. Back in Schleifer’s dance class, students may not realize they are exercising, but the benefits are clear. “The kids really seem to enjoy it, and I watch as they all progress over the years,” says Schleifer.

“I want to change the world,” she continues. “I really do.”