In Oak Hill High School’s efforts to implement new, proficiency-based graduation requirements, one department is held up as a prime example of what this new kind of education should look like. It’s not math, English or science — but physical education.
This is an installment in an extended series of reports called “Lessons From Oak Hill,” on how proficiency-based education standards are changing the way schools operate, focusing on the experiences of Regional School Unit 4, northwest of Lewiston.
Sophomore Ryder Johnston strains his face as he strides up the steps of a giant StairMaster machine in the gym at Oak Hill High School. He is quiet, underneath a mop of shaggy hair and glasses, but he opens up when he talks about his passion: his work as a volunteer firefighter.
He says he has designed a personal workout program to help him climb dozens of floors.
“On Feb. 3, I’m going to be climbing the tallest building in New England with full firefighting gear, for lung cancer. And my training is working on building my strength up, and power, to get prepared to climb the building,” he says.
Johnston says he’d probably not be as engaged in PE if it were just the usual menu of games.
“I heard about the climb, I thought about this class and thought I could use the class to train myself,” he says.
Around the gym, others are engaged in their own personal training programs. One student focuses on squats — he says he’s building up his leg muscles to improve his goal kicks for the JV soccer team. A few steps away, two girls practice cartwheels for cheerleading.
It’s all part of a class called FLiP, which stands for the Fitness for Life Program. It’s a class that district and state experts tout as an example of how proficiency-based education could potentially get more students engaged in their learning.
— PE teacher Geoff Wright
PE teacher Geoff Wright helped design the program almost a decade ago, after years of seeing students sit on the sidelines during traditional PE classes that promoted team sports, like dodgeball or volleyball.
“There was a reason, there was a purpose why those things were implemented years and years ago,” Wright says. “But health and PE were supposed to educate people, give people the knowledge so that their lives would become a little bit more functional. And it’s clearly not working. So reality for me was, I didn’t want to implement something that wasn’t working.”
Now, students take standard health classes but also spend some PE time in the classroom, where they learn about nutrition, muscles and metabolism. By 10th grade, they put it all together. Students design personal fitness plans based on their goals.
“So if a kid is diabetic and they want to work on controlling blood sugar levels, they build programs based on controlling nutrition, controlling sugars, developing workouts and programs that will help them in the future,” Wright says. “That’s the idea.”
The idea of focusing on personal fitness over sports isn’t revolutionary. But FLiP also gives students a lot of choice, both in terms of how they work out and when. And if students gain enough trust of teachers, some can do nearly all of their gym work outside of school by their junior year — say, at a dance class or sports practice.
Sophomore Meaddoe Brown says she likes that freedom.
“I feel like it makes us feel more grown up,” she says. “And lets us do our own thing.”
The approach does come with drawbacks. Some students say they miss the competition and play of traditional PE. Those are aspects that some physical education experts say is important for students to receive.
Sometimes, students may also try to take advantage of the relative freedom of this model. Back in the Oak Hill gym, a few students huddle together and glance at their phones. Wright quickly steps in.
“What do you got going on now?” he says, marching over. “OK, what are we doing? Oh my word! You’re taking forever and a day!”
After he gets them exercising again, he says motivating kids can be hard.
“Most of the time, they have an idea of what they want to be doing. It’s just getting them to do it,” Wright says. “And that’s being a teenager. I have one at home. It’s like, ‘Get your clothes off the stairs.’ It could be three days. It’s just a matter of reminding them and finding a way to get them to see the importance of doing it.”
But despite these challenges, University of Maine professor Christopher Nightingale says it’s impressive to see so many students engaged in physical education. He says that’s rare in high school.
“It certainly seems like their program has figured out a way to address these things with the students and get them engaged,” Nightingale says. “That’s the goal of physical education, is develop what we call physically literate adults.”
Wright says FLiP has succeeded, in part, because of how it was created.
“We didn’t really ask a lot of questions,” he says. “We kind of hijacked the system a little bit. I always laugh because in PE and health, it’s irritating sometimes. Because in PE you don’t get a lot of respect, because you’re a PE teacher. But at the same time, because people aren’t paying a lot of attention to you, the reality is you can kind of do what you want.”
— PE teacher Geoff Wright
There’s another, bigger lesson here about why this proficiency-based approach has worked while others haven’t caught on. Wright says it’s because it came not from a mandate but real need.
“As much as I hate to say this, it was probably more coincidence than anything,” he says. “I knew … how I wanted to change what PE looked like. And as proficiency-based, customized learning curriculums became a movement for schools, it just fit.”
For nearly a decade, Wright says, the PE department at Oak Hill has mostly been left alone to try and fail and try again. Researcher Laura Hamilton of the nonprofit RAND Corp. says this is key to long-lasting reform.
“Having that buy-in from the very beginning, and the engagement of teachers, and actually designing the approach that they’re going to take, rather than being told from someone at the district or state level what they need to do, is something that can really promote effective implementation,” she says.
Maine Education Association President Lois-Kilby Chesley says that limited educator input has challenged past reforms, as well.
“It can’t be just researchers or reformers or school boards, who aren’t in the day-to-day work,” she says.
It appears Oak Hill is adopting the same mindset in other departments, too. Principal Marco Aliberti points to a “freshman academy” in which teachers share students and teach similar themes across classes. They’re pieces that he hopes could one day evolve into something similar to FLIP.
“It may not be exactly the same, but close to it,” he says. “That’s exciting to me. Because part of the reason it’s successful is because you have collaboration.”
But, as much of educational reform has shown, getting there will take a lot of time, and a lot of support.
For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of the news staff at Maine Public. Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
This story was originally published Nov. 17, 2017 at 4:34 p.m. ET.