Experiment: Gym Class Helps Kids Read Better

Posted by Liz Dwyer

It looks like all the school districts that have cut back or eliminated recess and physical education classes in order to spend more time on test prep are on the wrong track. According to results from a 3,000 student high school out in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, putting students who struggle in reading and math into physical education classes can shrink waistlines and boost academic performance.

PBS NewsHour recently highlighted the innovative exercise program at Naperville Central High School where freshman and sophomores start their school day with 7:45 a.m. workouts. Teachers were skeptical when the brains behind the program, retired physical education coordinator Paul Zientarski, first came up with the idea six years ago, but the results are impressive.

On average, kids who signed up for physical education directly before reading comprehension read half-a-year ahead of those who opted out of the exercise program.

And in math, the improvements were even more dramatic. Students with the benefit of P.E. before pre-algebra consistently did better, improving two to four times more than their peers on standardized tests.

Student Nadlene Alnass says that after P.E., she's able to, "focus more on to the teacher, more on the lessons, more on everything." Indeed, Naperville is one of the top performing school districts in Illinois and Zientarski believes plenty of credit should go to the fitness-based P.E. programs. He wants to spread the idea to other school districts around the nation. Unfortunately, that takes money. 

If you watch the video above, the fitness facilities students at Naperville High have access to look like they're from a high-price gym like Crunch. Naperville schools are surely being hit by budget cuts, but the city also has a median household income of $101,894 to cushion the blow—a far cry from what's going on in low-income neighborhoods.

If getting in some exercise before starting school really does boost academic performance, what would it take to have fitness facilities like Naperville's in high schools labeled as dropout factories?