Image: Jacob Miller
Janet Hostetter  /  AP
Jacob Miller practices Ultimate Frisbee for his online physical education class, in Minneapolis, Minn.
updated 10/20/2005 4:57:18 PM ET 2005-10-20T20:57:18

Jacob Miller’s gym class isn’t about push-ups or running laps or dodgeball. It’s about computers and Frisbee.

Last year, as the tall, cheerful South High School senior neared graduation, he was finding it hard to complete his physical education requirement while balancing studies, sports and a social life. Then Miller discovered that through a new online class he could fulfill his phys-ed credit after school by playing on the Ultimate Frisbee team.

“I would’ve had to go to gym class and take up an hour every day,” the 17-year-old said during a break from tossing a Frisbee with a few teammates. “I would’ve had to give up orchestra. If I’d taken it last year, I’d have had to give up German.”

The Minneapolis school system’s online physical education allows kids to choose a physical activity they enjoy, do it for 30 minutes three times a week — on their own time — while keeping an online journal. A parent or coach must confirm the student did the activities, and a fitness test at semester’s end will turn up any cheaters.

Course choices have ranged from weight-lifting to swimming to horseback riding.

The course is proving phenomenally popular in Minneapolis, and teachers and administrators who developed the course believe they’ve hit on a way to help kids grow into adults with lifelong healthy fitness habits.

“You’re always going to have kids who, phys ed is not their favorite thing or their priority,” said Frank Goodrich, a longtime PE teacher who supervises an online gym class. “We want kids to be physically active and fit their whole life. If there’s a percentage that we were missing and we’re reaching them now — that’s pretty cool.”

Online classes have grown increasingly common in high schools in recent years. But phys ed has been sort of the last frontier. While available at some online-only schools nationwide, it’s been less common at traditional high schools.

“I was a big skeptic at first. It didn’t make sense to me,” said Brenda Corbin, a longtime phys ed teacher who ultimately helped write the curriculum for the new course.

Teachers said they had to embrace a shift in physical education that was already under way: Less emphasis on team sports, and more on personal fitness, health and wellness.

Josh Boucher, a 15-year-old sophomore, has a hip condition that makes it difficult for him to run. But he also has a black belt in karate, and last summer was able to turn his training into his phys ed class.

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“I was doing so much physical activity — more than most gym classes,” Boucher said. “Now I can get credit for it.”

He also rejects the idea that the online classes are easier than traditional gym. Students must study the health benefits of their activities and get assignments on related topics like healthy eating.

“It’s time-consuming,” Boucher said. “We had hours of written work where we were learning about fitness and how to better our lives. More than I’d ever had in gym class.”

The teachers are in contact through e-mail and by phone, meeting face-to-face at least twice — once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end, for baseline fitness testing.

The students “have to do better physically at the end of the semester compared to the beginning,” said online PE teacher Tammy Cowan. “If they don’t, I wouldn’t pass them, to be honest.”

It’s not hard to spot cheaters, the teachers say.

“You’re in contact with them constantly,” said Goodrich, a gym teacher right out of central casting — trim and fit with buzz cut and intense stare. “You’re going to get a sense pretty quick if they’re fudging it.”

Minneapolis school officials said they’re hearing from school districts around the country who are interested in the program. In Minneapolis, student waiting lists are filling up fast.

“It’s like we started the ball rolling, and it started rolling so fast and now we’re trying to catch up,” said Jan Braaten, content specialist in physical education for Minneapolis schools.

Braaten is making a presentation on the program in January to a national conference of PE teachers.

“It’s not appropriate for all students, but for the ones it works for it’s good practice for the rest of their lives,” said Dolly Lambdin, a health education professor at the University of Texas and past president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. “The issue here is if students can take it into their lives and move toward self-responsibility.”

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