It can’t be one or the other – it has to be both.

As Laramie County School District 1 leaders sit down to create a new junior high schedule for the 2020-21 school year and beyond, they have one major objective: Improve academic performance. That’s because, in recent years, local seventh- and eighth-graders have shown a troubling drop in performance on standardized tests compared with their peers at similar-sized schools in other parts of Wyoming.

To try to fix this problem, school board members recently supported a tentative plan to increase the length of some class periods from the current 42 minutes each to 56 minutes. This would apply to math, English, science and social studies – the four main areas evaluated on standardized tests – and would be effective each school day.

That would leave just two blocks for elective classes, along with a 30-minute lunch block and a 30-minute advisory block.

But many rightly fear such a change will come at a cost to the health of many students as physical education moves from a mandatory class to an elective. After all, we know that, if given a choice, many kids that age will choose to sit out of physical activity. We see it in some of our own children and grandchildren – the tendency to want to sit in front of a screen, playing a video game, rather than getting outside, even during the warmer months.

And the data backs up our observations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled nationwide since the 1970s. Based on data from 2015-16, nearly one in five school-age children and young people between the age of 6 and 19 is obese. And as children get older, the percentage of those who are severely overweight rises – from 13.9% of 2- to 5-year-olds to 20.6% of 12- to 19-year-olds.

The irony is the CDC says schools are one of the best ways to reverse this trend. If more schools would “help young people eat more fruits and vegetables, eat fewer foods and beverages that are high in added sugars and solid fats, and increase daily minutes of physical activity,” our kids would be healthier and more successful in a variety of ways.

The other major problem affecting teens these days is depression and anxiety. Accor- ding to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2017, an estimated 3.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 (13.3%) in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. Of that number, 2.3 million experienced “severe impairment.”

Yet study after study shows the positive impact exercise has on the brain. According to a 2006 report in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry by physicians from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, “aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression.” The doctors go on to say physical activity has other beneficial effects on mental health, including distraction, social interaction and self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task or succeed in specific situations.

So, given all that, why would local school leaders choose to let junior high students opt out of P.E.? Since physical activity improves cognitive function, it would seem more important than ever to make sure it is paired with increased time in the classroom to improve academic performance.

In fact, we believe the new schedule should have students start the day with physical activity to get the blood and endorphins flowing before asking them to sit and focus for close to an hour at a time.

And since kids this age often struggle to focus in early morning classes, LCSD1 should move the entire school day a bit later to fit their natural circadian rhythms, which neurologists say makes them yearn to stay awake later at night and sleep later into the day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended just that five years ago, saying junior highs and high schools should delay the start of class until 8:30 a.m. or later.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the policy statement, “School Start Times for Adolescents,” published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics. “The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life.”

Read that last sentence again, folks. If we really want what’s best for our young people – not just in terms of improved academic performance, but also long-term physical and mental health – why wouldn’t we listen to the experts?

When it comes to setting a new junior high schedule for students in Cheyenne, the answer couldn’t be more obvious. It can’t be either longer classes or P.E. – somehow, some way, it has to be both.

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