At Prescott Junior High in north Modesto, pull-ups get counted, daily runs get timed, and the results matter – improvement can change your shorts.
While PE for most has wasted away in the shadow of math and reading scores, the Prescott Roadrunners keep a tradition of physical challenges. Hitting tougher and tougher targets for speed, strength and endurance earns kids a progression of colored gym shorts.
It was those gym shorts that brought filmmaker Doug Orchard to Prescott, thanks to a chance encounter with alumna Jennifer Barcellos Dyan. Orchard was midway through his documentary “The Motivation Factor,” on the power PE programs of the 1960s epitomized by La Sierra High School in Carmichael.
“Jennifer said, ‘That sounds like the program I went to. We had color shorts. I’ve saved all of them.’ That was when I knew,” Orchard said by phone last week. “Colored shorts were the hallmark of La Sierra. Ten thousand alumni, and they all saved their gym shorts. These are guys in their 70s – who does that?”
Colored shorts were the hallmark of La Sierra. Ten thousand alumni, and they all saved their gym shorts. These are guys in their 70s – who does that?
Filmmaker Doug Orchard
A Prescott teacher, Mark Wilson, traveled to Carmichael back in the day, took notes on the program and adapted it for junior high boys and girls, said current Prescott PE teacher Kris Lindberg, one of four at the 700-student campus.
“Our kids start with gray trunks, then progress to reds, blues, golds – Hall of Fame – and purples, beyond gold trunks,” Lindberg said via email Friday. Prescott’s calisthenics, running drills, and obstacle course would all look familiar to La Sierra grads, as would a peg board contraption for pull ups.
“What’s so impressive is how effective it’s been. They kept it going,” Orchard said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was like a time machine. But this time we’re not doing anything historical. This is real life.”
In an era where 80 percent of people with gym memberships don’t use them, Orchard hopes to convince a couch potato nation that physical health and agility is closely tied to mental health and acuity. Having done 250 interviews in 28 states over 4 years in making the film, he is convinced of the cognitive and social benefits of exercise.
“Depression is the number one disability on Earth. Exercise is more effective than any drug in combating depression,” Orchard said.
“Statistically, there is an 83 percent drop in discipline problems in elementary schools just by implementing a 30-minute burst of exercise, one semester to the next,” he said, adding group exercise teaches teamwork even among very diverse groups.
“I did not say all our problems go away with exercise, but it falls in that triangle – exercise, sleep and nutrition – and exercise seems to drive the other two,” he said, noting people tend to sleep and eat better after a workout, but sleeping and eating do not create any urge to go for a run.
The La Sierra program took exercise to the next level, creating hundreds of lean, disciplined teens whose daily gym routine brought spectators and so impressed President John F. Kennedy he encouraged other schools to take up the program. Thousands of schools did.
The lowest rookie (white shorts) at La Sierra had to do a minimum of six pull-ups. The top dogs in navy blue shorts could do 34. For perspective, the Marines require recruits to do three.
Statistics show the decline in our health, fitness, and productivity since physical education has taken a back seat to academic test scores.
Prescott PE teacher Kris Lindberg
“Our program develops large groups of boys, instead of individuals,” program developer Stan LeProtti told Look magazine for an article in its Jan. 30, 1962, issue. “Boys like to be challenged to do hard things, as long as you are fair with them.”
But a backlash developed against rigorous PE programs as the Vietnam war dragged on, Orchard said, “Parents said, what we're really doing with this boot camp is preparing kids to go to war, which makes no sense when you think about it. No one goes up against someone to kill them with jumping jacks."
La Sierra High closed in 1983, he said, “and at that point (the PE program) appeared to be extinct. It just went away.”
His film was about the wheezing death of in-school exercise until he found Prescott, which Orchard believes is the only school in the nation to retain the program.
“They really didn’t really know how special they were,” he said. They will after watching the second half of Orchard’s film, which won Best Documentary Feature and the Audience Choice Award at the Life Fest Film Festival on May 6 in Hollywood. It will be out in theaters in August.
That school has such a low incidence of discipline – that PE program teaches a lot more than fitness, a lot more.
Superintendent Britta Skavdahl
“It is a great documentary that needs to get out there and be seen in order to help schools and administrators see the importance of physical education once again,” Lindberg said.
“Statistics show the decline in our health, fitness, and productivity since physical education has taken a back seat to academic test scores. Science proves that physical education helps kids learn better and builds the brain,” she said.
The Stanislaus Union School District gets that, said Superintendent Britta Skavdahl.
“I like that it’s about goal setting and perseverance – and that works well for them not only in PE,” she said Friday. “You see them developing that mindset.”
The school has a no-cut policy for all its sports, encouraging everyone to play, and celebrating physical fitness with a PE awards banquet each year.
“About two-thirds of the school goes out for the track team,” Skavdahl said. “They’re very inclusive. That school has such a low incidence of discipline – that PE program teaches a lot more than fitness, a lot more.”