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Data Into Dollars: How Fitness Data Can Justify Funding for Physical Education

This story is the second in a series highlighting schools’ successes in integrating health and wellness into the school environment as part of school improvement efforts under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Read the first story here. 

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Data and technology fuel our world, influencing our modes of communication, how we stay in touch with old friends, and how we monitor and improve our health. Across the nation, schools are using technology to evaluate students’ progress in math, science, and social studies, and even in physical education. 

Student fitness assessment tools, such as FitnessGram®, help schools evaluate and evolve their physical education programming by allowing physical education teachers to easily measure and track student fitness levels. This enables them to tailor physical education programming to meet students’ needs, and to make critical connections between students’ fitness levels and academic outcomes.  

This connection is critical with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and a stronger emphasis on educating the whole child by addressing the root causes of chronic absenteeism and poor academic performance. Student fitness data can be leveraged to advocate for increased funding for physical education. 

In South Carolina, approximately 1,250 schools – 84 percent of the state’s public schools – utilize the FitnessGram® assessment. School and district leaders across the state use this data to improve the quality of physical education and obtain increased funding. 

“District physical education coordinators use FitnessGram® data to ensure physical education teachers receive relevant professional development,” said Lynn Hammond, FitnessGram® coordinator at the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control. “School administrators also use the data to inform decisions around additional physical activity opportunities, recess and physical education scheduling, and funding for equipment.” 

On the school-level, Hammond added, physical education teachers use FitnessGram® data to modify lesson plans to better focus on areas for improvement. 

Shawn Norris, physical education teacher at Satchel Ford Elementary in South Carolina, which was named to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s 2018 list of America’s Healthiest Schools, also noted the data’s usefulness in identifying trends among grade levels, genders, or other groups. According to Hammond, statewide FitnessGram® data show an association between poverty status and fitness level, with lower-income students trailing behind their higher-income peers – a critical disparity for administrators to recognize as they seek to advance health equity in their schools and communities. 

Like many participating schools, Norris used FitnessGram® data to secure additional funding for a district-wide fitness event and an active afterschool program. He advocates for others to do the same, saying “in a data-driven culture, this information is vital to fund projects, validate programs, and measure the impact of your program on students.” 

Across the country, educators unite around data’s unequivocal ability to provide tangible evidence that can advance support for school wellness. 

“For many years I have read and heard about how physical activity and fitness aligns with academic performance,” said Nick Thompson, supervisor of physical education, health, and family & consumer sciences at Maryland’s Wicomico County Public Schools, which has collected FitnessGram® data on fourth through 12th grade students for the past three years. “Once we were able to prove an association by showing data that supported academic improvement, district administrators became more interested.” This interest resulted in ESSA Title IV, Part A funds being allocated to support physical education in the county.  

Finding the right way to parlay that evidence into increased funds could help your school meet its wellness goals and strengthen the quality of your physical education programming for years to come.  

When thinking about how to bring data to life at your school through ESSA or other potential sources of funding, perhaps the best advice to heed is that of Norris who urges, “be creative and dream big.” 

To learn more about ESSA and how ESSA funding can support health and wellness efforts, visit HealthierGeneration.org/ESSA.