COAL TOWNSHIP - Shamokin Area School District is the recipient of a $1.1 million federal grant to radically overhaul its physical education program in hopes of boosting the health and wellness of its student population.

Shamokin Area's award of $1,105,095 will be spread over three years and includes $186,746 of its own funding. It's believed to be the largest single competitive grant award in the school's history, according to Superintendent James Zack.

Rock climbing walls, treadmills and elliptical machines, brand new strength training machines, outdoor adventure equipment like intricate rope climbs and zip lines, even a large video screen for interactive dance exercise will all be purchased with the funds.

District residents will benefit, too, as all of the new exercise equipment will be available for use outside of school hours at no cost.

The district is one of four Pennsylvania school districts and among 67 grant recipients nationwide awarded more than $33 million through the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday.

Physical education teachers Connie Boyer, Christi Cryder, James Dressler and Robert Nye worked with Curriculum Coordinator Ruby Michetti and Insight Grants Development, a grant writing firm, worked together on the successful grant application. Shawn Zalinski, health education teacher, will be instrumental in the nutritional aspect of the grant program. The teachers all expressed excitement about the potential impact the grant funding could have on the greater Shamokin area. See accompanying story for teachers' comments.

It took five years and four failed applications before the district won a share of the highly competitive prize. The wrestling boosters paid the grant writer's bill.

SASD Gets FIT will target the entirety of the near 2,600 student population, and professional development will be funded to meet its goals. A full-time project director will be hired to oversee the program, and everyone from the business office to building principals and maintenance staff will all play a role.

Budget cuts in 2012 decimated the physical education program, reducing district staff to four full-time physical education teachers and one health teacher, and essentially eliminating gym class at the elementary schools.

Fitness, wellness

Starting next school year, Shamokin Area will implement the SASD Gets FIT program targeting improved student performance in physical education, developing and sustaining fitness goals and the adoption of healthy eating habits, according to the plan shared Tuesday by district administration.

The program will reinvigorate phys-ed, shifting away from a focus on competitive sports and more towards individual student fitness in the hopes of boosting student interest.

At Shamokin Area, less than 15 percent of students get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. One in three district students do not participate in team sports.

Focus will also be given to nutritional education, encouraging increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Nearly 40 percent of district students are either overweight or obese. More than four in 10 students drink soda up to six times daily. Almost nine of 10 eat less than three servings of vegetables each day.

"The obesity rates were increasing in our student population and we were very concerned also that nutrition education was not viewed as valuable and important component for wellness," Michetti said Tuesday after meeting with Zack and phys-ed teachers about the grant.

Student wellness centers will be established next school year in the elementary schools and the middle/high school, stocked with age-appropriate cardiovascular machines, strength training equipment and board game-style physical activity games designed to engage a broader portion of the student population will also be utilized. Students with special needs will not be excluded.

In years two and three, money will used for the purchase of outdoor adventure equipment utilizing ropes and climbing equipment, poles and suspended platforms and zip lines, some to be utilized in the treetops of the wooded areas surrounding the west-end campuses.

The district hopes to achieve targeted increases in physical activity, upper body strength and cardiovascular fitness and a healthy body mass index.

Something for everyone

The intent is for the program to last far beyond the three year life of the grant.

"We're looking to make it a very sustainable program for the future," Michetti said.

Matthew Losiewicz, school board director, lauded the teachers, faculty and everyone who assisted in compiling information for the successful grant application.

"This is not just something that's great for our students, it's also something that's amazing for our community," Losiewicz said during Tuesday night's school board meeting.

"So now in an area that doesn't have a lot to do for families, this is something that's going to give them a chance outside school hours for families to come and do things that are healthy, positive and gives them an outlet to better themselves."