Why Our Elementary School Keeps Its Focus on Fitness: A Principal’s Perspective

The pandemic took us down a path that none of us expected and now educators are faced with planning what can be done to increase academic growth during the 2021-2022 school year.

I take a different view of what the first steps should be to get our school back on the right road again. Academic instruction and growth are important, but my focus is on reinvigorating our school’s Focus on Fitness initiative. With every year and every challenge, I am more convinced that leading my school as a Focus on Fitness school is the right road for my students.

What Is Focus on Fitness?

Focus on Fitness is an initiative we created at Park Brook, based on research. I had heard a nationally known speaker share about how running and fitness levels can change the academic success of a student. I was hooked that this might be the answer for us. We then transformed into a Focus on Fitness school, with the motto “Good for Our Bodies … Good for Our Brains.”

Now, each school day begins with a “brain boost” to prepare students for learning, and teachers incorporate additional brain boosts throughout the day to keep students focused and engaged in learning and increase their academic achievement.

Families can integrate fitness into their student’s before- and after-school experience with classes such as Morning Move, After-School Boot Camp, and Bucket Drumming. Scholars can also take part in the American Heart Association Double Dutch team, run the Twin Cities 5K, learn to cross-country ski, and participate in monthly weekend field trips that keep our school community active.

Benefits of Focusing on Fitness

This program has led to positive changes in student behavior, with fewer suspensions as one of the indicators. In addition, substitutes and itinerant staff — who are well equipped to view and judge student behavior at many different schools — report the positive difference in student behaviors at Park Brook.

Many students sit on kinesthetic seating (including stability balls), there is an overall calmness evident in the school, and academic growth scores are generally strong.

The before/after school and weekend activities have built a community where students have a sense of belonging and an opportunity to build relationships with staff in a different way than can be created in the classroom, all while increasing fitness levels and ultimately academic growth.

First-grade teachers have shared how students can recognize when they need a brain boost and will even state when they need to move. The teachers incorporate the brain boosts throughout the day but will add more when needed. Students are then ready to get right back to work.

Our school psychologist analyzed the data at Park Brook and reported a strong correlation between fitness levels (when looking at all of the fitness tests) and academic scores.

Scott Taylor shares a principal’s perspective during this interview with Sean Nevills.

Focus on Fitness Summer Camp

Summer school is touted as one way to close the achievement gap; however, as we completed the 2020-2021 academic year during what could be considered one of the most stressful periods in recent years as a society, our summer school instructional staff wanted to provide a Focus on Fitness summer camp that would use fitness and activity-based methods to teach academic skills — and get the students outside!

More and more, my staff have become advocates for movement and increasing movement in instruction. Yes, kids need to be in classrooms learning, but learning doesn’t only happen in a classroom. We have been missing social connections with others during this pandemic and have seen a rise in depression and anxiety, in addition to decreased time being physically active. My approach as the elementary school principal is to take a fitness-based approach to academic learning.

This whole discussion with my teachers about summer school brought me back to a visit I had a few years back with a physical education teacher who had been named MNSHAPE Teacher of the Year. We had a great conversation in a coffee shop about academic strategies he had developed. He told me his district had analyzed his data and determined that his strategies were more effective than some of the other strategies used in Title I programs.

So, before launching the Focus on Fitness summer camp, I reached out to him, and he began working with my summer school staff so we could all benefit from his knowledge.

Moving Forward

When schools closed in March 2020, our before/after school and weekend activities came to an end. However, our emphasis on fitness continued. Now as the 2021-2022 school year is underway, we are still in the midst of the pandemic and stress is still high. I’ve felt a real need to reinvigorate the Focus on Fitness initiative at our school and incorporate proven strategies as we move forward.

Here are a few highlights as we begin rebuilding the Focus on Fitness initiative (which will take time):

  • Fifth-grade classes began the year with a squat challenge for their brain boosts.
  • Twelve students took part in the Twin Cities 5K (compared to more than 50 students prior to the pandemic).
  • The after-school Boot Camp had close to 100 students, down a bit in numbers, but a great way to start the year.
  • Girls on the Run has 13 girls in grades 3-5. We look forward to doubling the numbers in coming seasons!
  • Teachers incorporated brain boosts in Google Meet classes, and we picked up right where we were before the pandemic.
  • Students in grades 3-5 continue to have their own fitness goals and use a Google Form to submit their scores. This gives them ownership of their fitness. (The physical education teacher closely monitors this process.)

As an administrator, I must look to the future and how to get back on track, but also live in the present, knowing that life is stressful — even when it has become the norm.

Here are some of the key takeaways from my perspective as an elementary school principal:

  • Physical education and fitness are the key to turning around schools;
  • It’s beneficial to increase active, movement-based instruction;
  • Academic growth is undoubtedly important, but there are many other issues that we need to address for students in order for academic growth to be achieved.

Getting us back on the right road again will require us to slow down, understand what we have learned that we want to carry forward into the future, and continually look at needs of the students. My own goal is to ensure my staff is centered on the Focus on Fitness initiative to increase the fitness levels of all students, which benefits their academic growth and their physical, mental, and emotional health.

Additional Resources

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor has been a principal in the Osseo Area Schools for 16 years, with 14 years at Park Brook Elementary in Brooklyn Park, MN. Increasing physical education and fitness has been key to academic growth at Park Brook. He graduated from Northern Arizona University and St. Cloud State and has an administration licensure from St. Mary’s University. He can be reached at taylors@district279.org.