Early in February, 200 irate parents gathered at a meeting of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District's school board to complain about what was being done with sports in their schools. This being Texas, one might have expected the exercised mothers and fathers to be upset over a losing football season, or an underfunded basketball squad or maybe even a leaky gymnasium here and there. But no, in the view of the Cypress-Fairbanks parents, their school district was placing too much emphasis on things athletic, so much so that it had led to the embarrassment of some Cypress-Fairbanks students' having to take physical education by mail.
Since 1982, the Texas State Board of Education has required its students to endure a minimum of three semesters of physical education. But Cypress-Fairbanks officials have decided that's not enough, and so have chosen to take advantage of a local-option rule that allows them to mandate an extra semester of PE. In the view of the Cypress-Fairbanks school board, that makes for sounder bodies to hold sounder minds. But some parents see things differently: they feel that the district uses the additional PE classes as a place to safely pen extra football coaches during the school day. Jersey Village High School's varsity football team, for example, has 12 assistant coaches, three of whom teach only one subject -- physical education.
Cypress-Fairbanks officials cry foul at that charge, contending that PE is a vital link in their academic program. And they add that Cypress-Fairbanks has a proud record of demanding more than is required by the state. "When I came to Cy-Fair in 1970," says curriculum superintendent Deanna Swekne, "it did not seem that unusual that we required four years of English where the state required three years. We were exercising our local option already."
"The idea behind [additional PE]," adds F.G. Bryant, an academic counselor at Jersey Village, "is a return to the body, mind and spirit. You educate people, but you also want to keep their body in decent physical condition."
Whether an extra semester of physical education does that may be open to debate. But what's proven is that the extra PE can wreak havoc on the schedules of the academically inclined. Motivated students wishing to take an advanced science course or an extra semester of a foreign language may instead find themselves forced to spend their time playing such intellectually stimulating games as dodgeball in order to graduate. Either that, or they turn to the solution found by some students -- trading in going to the gymnasium for going to the nearest mailbox.
Texas A&M junior Erin Yarbrough is one former Cypress-Fairbanks student who chose to follow the mail-order PE route. During the summer after her sophomore year at Jersey Village High School, Yarbrough decided she wanted to take four years of high school science. But after reviewing her schedule, she realized that as important as biology was in the grand scheme of things, taking it that fall would not help her graduate -- a PE deficiency would hold her back for another year. Yarbrough sent off for her first lesson.
"I took it because I thought PE was kind of stupid," says Yarbrough. "There were better classes to take -- the classes I really needed for college. A&M doesn't give a shit how far you can run or how fast."
"Colleges don't ask how many laps you can run," agrees Sharon Yarbrough, Erin's mother, "and they don't care if you can
According to Erin Yarbrough, mail-order PE requires minimal exertion. Students have nine months to complete the $85 course, which is approved by the state and offered through the University of Texas and Texas Tech. The class consists of weekly assignments that come out of a textbook, Concepts of Physical Fitness. It's conducted in typical correspondence fashion -- students send in completed lesson assignments and projects. Yarbrough was not impressed.
"I'd have to read a stupid article and then do a summary on it," she says. "Or I'd have to go to the library to find an article about bowling or something. It was a joke."
But not as much of a joke as the multiple-choice final. "I studied for about five minutes before I took the test, and I got a 100 on it," Yarbrough says. The toughest question on the exam, she recalls, was how to determine a heart rate. "It was a total joke."
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Apparently, the word about mail-order PE is spreading. An employee at UT's continuing education office says that at least 500 students across the state are currently enrolled, and that the number is on the rise. Though Cypress-Fairbanks administrators were unable to provide district-wide attendance statistics, this year ten of the 2,631 students at Langham Creek High School are mailing their way around the extra physical education requirement.
Cypress-Fairbanks counselors express concern about what they see as a negative trend. "It's sort of a joke that you could even do PE by correspondence," says Jersey Village's Bryant. "The students have not done what they're supposed to do -- they haven't done the PE part." The kids, according to Bryant, just have their parents sign their exercise charts, and skip out on the push-ups and sit-ups.
Despite the alleged lack of supervision, PE by correspondence doesn't appear to be the ultimate escape -- two of Bryant's students have actually failed the class. But that's okay, he says, because they can still make it up -- Cypress-Fairbanks ISD is the only Houston-area school district that offers PE during summer school.
And even that causes some parents to shake their heads in wonder. "Everybody's moaning and hand-wringing at the fact that the Chinese and European kids are so far ahead of our kids," Sharon Yarbrough says with a sarcastic chuckle. "Well, no wonder. They don't have to run laps.