Cedar Rapids school's gym class earns statewide recognition

Jefferson High program integrates CrossFit, kickboxing, movement

Cedar Rapids Jefferson junior Mitch Willems throws a punch during Kelly Phelan's striking personal fitness class at Jeff
Cedar Rapids Jefferson junior Mitch Willems throws a punch during Kelly Phelan's striking personal fitness class at Jefferson High School in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

In a humid gym on Thursday, approximately 20 Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School students are jogging the room’s perimeter. The students are clad entirely in black, save for a rainbow of stylish socks, with determined faces that don’t match the pulsating David Guetta song that serves as a soundtrack to their conditioning. Welcome to gym class.

This isn’t any ordinary day in physical education. Ed Thomas, health and physical education consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, is filming the class. He plans to edit the resulting footage and put it on the department website as early as Thursday, Feb. 28, so a wider audience can see the gym curriculum that so thoroughly impressed him and exemplified “a shift away from an overemphasis on sports and games to a focus on fitness and motor fitness for every child.”

“It’s about making them able to be fit for the rest of their lives, and active,” Thomas continued. “They have a good balance here between good tough training and attention to good quality instruction.”

The high schoolers, led by physical education teacher Kelly Phelan, soon divide into lines. They traverse the width of the gym, doing lunges, before dividing into groups of three and inflicting torrents of staccato blows to punching bags. These are striking activities, which Phelan explains is similar to kickboxing, part of a unit in her personal fitness class.

“It’s function of movement,” she said. “It’s core to extremity … When they move on to a different course in physical education they already know these basic movements.”

Phelan has taught at Jefferson for 12 years. When Jefferson alum and former state wrestling champion Matt Orton joined the school’s physical education staff in 2011-12, he brought along the CrossFit curriculum he pioneered when he taught at Iowa City West High School.

According to the official website, CrossFit is an exercise regimen that focuses on movement, fitness, nutrition and community. It includes strength training and cardio activities, everything from squats and push-ups to weightlifting and sprints.

After about a year and a half, the result has been a 6.7 percent drop in physical education failure rates for Jefferson students.

"We're not grading students on their skill set. It's based on their intensity level and whether they're working hard," Orton said. "We're trying to move away from things that have been done in the past, to things that they'll actually use outside of class."

During a time when administrators across the country are reducing or eliminating gym classes, often due to budget constraints or a focus on core academic subjects, Jefferson is going in the opposite direction.

“Matt and Kelly really changed things,” said Principal Chuck McDonnell. "The kids who were hesitant started to buy-in more."

Kids like Janey Welsh, 18, a senior at Jefferson. She was present during Thursday’s filming and took performance physical education during third trimester last year and first trimester this year. She loved it, so much so that she's also planning to take it again this spring.

“It’s honestly life changing,” Welsh said, crediting the class with helping her lose an estimated 50 to 60 pounds. “You incorporate different lifts. You can do stuff you don’t need to go out and buy  … It never gets boring.”

This year, the school began offering gym as an everyday class instead of on alternating days. Some students are even taking it as an early bird offering, getting to school at 6:30 a.m. just to stay fit.

CrossFit has become a popular elective for both male and female Jefferson students, "a huge surprise" to Phelan.

"Some of my best kids, these little bitty girls, can throw some serious punches," she said, noting that some of her classes have as many as 30 students.

Students who want the classic gym experience can take arena fitness, which offers traditional games and activities, or performance physical education, which centers on weight lifting. All three classes contain some CrossFit components, which is what drew Thomas to spotlight Jefferson.

“CrossFit alone is not an ideal structure for physical education because it’s not heavy instructionally,” he said. “[Phelan and Orton] focus on quality movement.”

Thomas estimated that many already demonstrate movement issues as early as in second grade due to the way traditional classrooms are set up, which is not ergonomically ideal.“Those days of just throwing the kids out and telling them to play, to just keep running, that’s not it,” he said. “We’ve got to teach them to move beautifully and think we can say that’s what’s going on [at Jefferson].”

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