Borough President Oddo was inspired to pursue physical education reform after reading Dr. John Ratey’s bestselling book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain which presented a critical mass of scientific evidence demonstrating the connection between exercise and brain development. In Spark, Dr. Ratey provided scores of case studies and academic findings that support his conclusion that aerobic exercise is “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
The opening chapter of Spark details how the Naperville, Illinois school district significantly improved academic performance by transforming physical education classes. After seeing the documented benefits of a shift from sports-based skill development to a focus on cardiovascular fitness in physical education curricula, Borough President Oddo was determined to bring this innovative reform to the students of District 31 on Staten Island. As a first step, our office partnered with Principal Deirdre DeAngelis to pilot a Spark-inspired physical education program at New Dorp High School.
A randomly selected group of nearly one hundred ninth grade students began their early morning physical education class with seven minutes—building to 15 by the end of the school year—of intense aerobic exercise. Borough Hall’s graduate data fellowship program monitored the de-identified academic performance of the students in the pilot class and compared their grades in each marking period to those of their ninth grade peers.
At the end of the school year, Borough Hall’s Public Policy Team reviewed the results. Despite curriculum restrictions which limited aerobic activity to, at most, the first 15 minutes of each physical education class, the pilot found promising indications that students in the Spark pilot were gaining ground, as compared to their peers in the control group.
“Given the potential impact of Spark on the academic performance of public school students—not to mention the ancillary benefits on health, behavior, and personal development—a rigorous evaluation is the logical next step necessary to realize transformative physical education reform,” said Borough President Oddo. “A shift to aerobic exercise, if done right, could contribute to leveling the playing field for all students in New York City schools.”
The results of the study can be viewed here.
Based on the findings from the Borough Hall-led pilot, the Borough President is calling on the de Blasio administration to partner with Borough Hall to launch a large-scale pilot across public schools on Staten Island with full fidelity to the cardiovascular fitness model.
“I applaud Staten Island for applying the science of exercise to bolster student achievement, with measurable, positive results. This is only with 12 minutes of intense exercise three times a week. It is wonderful to see the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of Borough President Oddo taking it to the next level and wanting to push it even further. Imagine the possibilities,” said John J. Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“(Borough) President Oddo’s study on the potential benefits of vigorous exercise in schools is a fitting exclamation point to National Physical Fitness and Sports Month. The pilot program at New Dorp High School on Staten Island is further evidence that we have only scratched the surface in realizing the power of exercise. To that end, at the direction of President Trump, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is participating in the development of a national strategy to increase youth sports participation and regular physical activity. I thank the Borough President for his leadership on this important issue—and for doing the hard work on the ground to publish these important findings,” said Anthony C. Ferreri, DBA Regional Director, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for Region II.
“Starting my day observing our ninth grade students engaged in rigorous aerobic activity is exciting, but it is the improvement in the academic data of these students that really makes me a believer in the SPARK experience. So thankful that our school staff and students are always ready to try something new, especially something that can make a difference,” said Deirdre A. DeAngelis, Principal, New Dorp High School.
“In an effort to educate the ninth grade students of the Institute of Health Science, on the importance of physical activity, we have begun to implement the SPARK program to supplement our current physical education curriculum. We have seen an increase in interest from our students in the areas that the SPARK program emphasizes (beating stress and anxiety, improving body and mind, and sharpening thinking skills). The evidence has been undeniable. By implementing this program, we have seen that aerobic physical activity in the morning stimulates the brain and increases maximum academic performance throughout the school day,” said Richard Rucireto, Assistant Principal of Health & Physical Education and Supervisor of the Institute of Health Sciences, New Dorp High School.