BOX ELDER - Most students in Melanie Jenkins' physical education classes at Box Elder School had never used a weight room before this year. A few weeks into the spring semester, they began to use the school's new weight room several times a week. They also visit a cardio room twice weekly and can use the school's other new workout equipment, including medicine balls, resistance bands, step blocks and workout videos.
"We just stayed in the same gym all the time," eighth-grader Arielle Wolfchief said about past years in PE class. The workouts are entirely new to her, Wolfchief said. "It's cool and it's fun."
Her classmate Mark Collins Jr. was reflective. "It will help out the kids here a lot," he said.
Box Elder School was the only organization in Montana last year to receive a Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. This year the school has put the money to work.
Box Elder will have $500,000 to spend over three years. Nearly $200,000 went into setup costs, including the purchasing of top-of-the-line weight-lifting and cardio machines, as well as new health textbooks. The money was available in November, and the facility was finished at the end of January.
While the students enjoy the equipment, Jenkins is particularly excited about the health curriculum. Once a week, each grade sits down for health class, and now Jenkins has a new curriculum to guide them. The textbook the school chose is for students in grades six through 10. It covers community and personal health, nutrition, fitness, anatomy, and sex education, she said.
"It just wasn't structured," Jenkins said about the previous health class. "Now we have a plan of attack of what to teach when."
Jenkins said the students were at first surprised at the change. In the past, health class was conducted by open discussion. But with the new curriculum, the textbook drives the studies.
The aim of the grant is to help the school meet state and federal standards, including standards for health education. It will pay for Jenkins to travel to attend physical education teacher training, something she said would otherwise not have been possible.
This year Jenkins is helping her students get accustomed to the new equipment, and encouraging members of the community and school staff to use it as well. In writing the grant, Box Elder School proposed making the facility an asset to the community, as well as the school's 350 students.
The students use the new equipment during their PE classes. The facility is open to staff from 6:45 to 7:45 a.m. and then after school from 3:45 to 5 p.m. for students and staff. In the evenings and for a few hours on the weekends, it is open to members of the community.
There are generally 10 to 15 people using the cardio or weight room during nonschool hours, Jenkins said. Use of the facility is totally free, and important for a population with a high incidence of diabetes, she added.
Jenkins said she's already seen members of the school staff who are diabetic using the exercise equipment.
By next year, Jenkins hopes she and other teachers can offer even more activities, including taking students to Montana State University-Northern to use the climbing wall or teaching canoeing and leading hiking trips. "One of our goals in the grant is to expose the kids to a variety of physical education exercises and rec activities, just to get them exposed to things they've never seen before," she said. "A lot of the kids here have never heard of yoga before. We're just trying to open their eyes to a lot of that."
A yoga instructor from Fort Benton will be on campus next week to teach the students the basics, she said.
The difference in what the school can offer since the grant was awarded has been vast, Jenkins said. "The technology aspect of this too has really bumped us up a notch," she said.
The fitness area is equipped with portable heart-rate monitors that students can wear as they exercise. With the new technology, students can be pushed to meet their own target rate, rather than being compared to their classmates, she said.
"If a small community like ours can receive this amount of money, every school should be trying to get this grant," she said.
Big Sandy received a grant in 2003, she said, another example of a small district that got a huge boost.