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For Crown Heights Students, a Mad Dash Down the Hall Fulfills Gym Credits

By Sonja Sharp | November 6, 2013 5:09pm
 Without a gymnasium, students at the high-achieving Medgar Evers College Prep are forced to run windsprints in the hallways and take multiple periods of gym some semesters to complete their graduation requirements. 
Medgar Evers College Prep Running in the Halls
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CROWN HEIGHTS — They're running in the halls! 

Sixteen-year-old Kyle Pierre has been sprinting up and down the same slick basement hallway almost every morning since he started at the elite Medgar Evers College Preparatory Academy in Crown Heights three years ago. Like the rest of his high-achieving classmates, he'll be running wind sprints there until he graduates. 

That's because Medgar Evers College Prep was built without a gym, leaving its 1,200 students to tear up and down the linoleum in a mad dash to finish their physical education credits before graduation day. 

"I didn't take it last year because I couldn't fit it in my schedule — I had a lot of AP classes," Pierre said. "I was taking AP Physics, AP US History, Calculus... I'll have to take two [periods of P.E.] next year, but it's no problem." 

Pierre would hardly be the first graduate of Medgar Evers Prep to spend a significant portion of his senior year in gym class. The crunch is so bad that many seniors spend hours in a row running in the hall just to graduate on time. 

"Our students come in at 7 a.m. in the morning for zero period in order to satisfy those credits," PTA president Tricia Mecklembourg told residents at a recent community meeting. 

"We had a number of our seniors doing three and four periods of makeup gym because they weren't able to do that during regular high school." 

The school only offers gym early in the day, in part because the 65-student classes need empty halls to run, and in part because it allows them to occasionally borrow space from neighboring institutions

"The way [the school] was built, it was with the intent to add the gymnasium and the auditorium at a later time," principal Michael Wiltshire explained. "It's been 13 years and I don't know when that later time will be."

The Department of Education said there are no plans to add a gym to the school, noting that the administration manages to provide P.E. for all students by making use of the basement and some limited access to facilities at Medgar Evers College. 

"It is a large school and the principal meets the challenge of scheduling all students for P.E.," DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg wrote in an email. "In addition, the school is the PSAL girls track and field champions. The girls use the track at the Armory."

She noted that the school includes a dance studio, and that students are able to practice team sports like basketball and volleyball when classes are held at Medgar Evers College. 

But advocates say those provisions come nowhere close to meeting New York State requirements for physical education. 

"The fact that the school has the kids running up and down the hall is very sad," said Amy Schwartz, chair of Women's City Club's Physical Education in City Public Schools Task Force.

"It’s a common experience in that there are a variety of ways that the schools are not being compliant [with state requirements]." 

The problem comes down to DOE policies that privilege test prep above all else, school collocations that strictly limit access to existing facilities, and toothless regulations that aren't enforced, Schwartz said.  

"The comptroller did an audit of schools, and found that almost no school was giving the required 120 minutes a week of physical education," Schwartz said.

"They’re not giving kids the P.E. requirement because there is no enforcement. There’s no one saying to the teachers, ‘You’re not compliant, we’re going to penalize you’." 

The state DOE did not respond to requests for specific comment as to whether Medgar Evers' program fulfills New York's physical education requirements. 

But students continue to flock to the school from all five boroughs, whether its P.E. program passes muster or not. 

"This is a special place. What happens in here is magical," said Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents the school as a part of her district, and told a recent parent meeting she'd nominate Wiltshire for New York City Schools Chancellor.

"This school produces scholars, and every child in here is going to college, which is why they come from near and far," James said.

As for Pierre and hundreds of young scholars like him, that path still includes thousands more laps around the basement. If he wants to go to college, he'll just have to keep running.  

"It's not bad. They'll have us do a lot of push-ups, lots of different exercises," Pierre said.  "Running — we do a lot of that."