Abell Salutes: Living Classrooms and Principal Marc Martin

May 2013 / Salutes / Health and Human Services

For Playworks and for using physical education in support of academic achievement at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary.

Dakari: “Boom Chicka Boom, I said Boom Chicka Boom.”

Children: “Boom Chicka Boom Chicka Boom.”

Dakari: “Chicka Boom!”

This is Playworks’ coach Dakari Taylor-Watson, leading 42 children, ages 6 to 13, in a pep yell in the gym of the Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School at Fayette and Chester streets. The school was designated in 2009 as one of the lowest-performing schools in Baltimore City. It is 11 o’clock in the morning.

Dakari leads the pep yell; the children respond robustly. Their voices ricochet against the bare walls of the gym:

Children: “Boom Chicka Boom Chicka Boom!”

In moments, they will break off into groups of 10 or so; some will play soccer or basketball, others will play dodge ball or hula-hoop. This is playtime at the Playworks’ program, for one hour every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday—36 weeks of the year.

Warming to the moment, the children are clapping their hands. They are jumping up and down, and waving their arms. They are also helping to prove a point that is the resolve of Living Classrooms and Principal Marc Martin: Physical exercise for urban children heightens their learning experience, and workouts in the gym or playground translate to higher grades in the classroom. 

Starting in 2010, program administrators, working on a three-year grant of $240,000 from The Abell Foundation, designed and implemented a plan for increasing physical education at the school, both inside the gym and outside on the playground—all toward making physical education (phys ed) a tonic to the educational experience here at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary.

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Living Classrooms is a Baltimore foundation that includes within its mission “the strengthening of communities and the inspiring of young people to achieve their potential through hands-on education and job training, using urban, natural, and maritime resources.” Locally, narrowing its focus, its objective is to help people living in underserved East Baltimore neighborhoods break the cycle of poverty through education. In support of that specific goal, it funds programs on local campuses and youth training centers, and acts as operators of two public schools, Crossroads Charter and Commodore John Rodgers. The 42 children in the gym at Commodore Rodgers are among the 510 children that make up the student body of the school and that Living Classrooms is designed to affect.

The Living Classrooms initiative at Commodore John Rodgers is based on research provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which links physical activity to improvement in academics. The one-hour Playworks supervised recess in the gym four days a week, in support of the program, is only one piece of the more expansive physical fitness focus. The initiative also addresses severe gaps in the physical education program, including an insufficient number of phys ed teachers, very little sports equipment, no recess, and a limited number of active after-school sports programs.

In collaboration with the school, Playworks receives $25,000 in support of its efforts, which include at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day with a structured before-school recess and after-school programming, trained full-time coaches to supervise all physical education on the playground, social and emotional development, a junior coach program (where older youth mentor younger children), an after-school noncompetitive program in girls’ basketball and co-ed volleyball, and training of school staff. While Playworks’ national program is currently a pre-K to fifth-grade program, the program has expanded with Living Classrooms to include a pilot program for middle school students to be held at Commodore John Rodgers.

In addition, through the physical education initiative, Living Classrooms has hired a second phys ed teacher for the school. It has installed weight training equipment on the playground for use by the community and developed after-school programming at the two new athletic fields and the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center. Also included are intramural soccer and lacrosse, and funding for bus transportation for students to and from the fields.

But for the effort, money, and energy expended in support of the Living Classrooms program at Commodore John Rodgers, what, through the one-and-a-half years, have been the results? Principal Marc Martin sums up: “Through the support of Living Classrooms and Playworks with our school fitness initiatives and goals, students are getting healthier each day. Twice the number of physical education classes are offered to students; students now receive recess each day; and students are aware of their own fitness ‘numbers,’ such as weight, endurance, and agility. This focus on fitness is making an impact. Not only is there a growing interest in our after-school athletic programs, but attendance is up, suspensions are down, and, most importantly, achievement is up. Students are improving reading levels by an average of two grade levels each year, and Commodore, for the first time in 10 years, met the state goals, by hitting 71 percent proficiency in reading and 68 percent proficiency in math. Attention on fitness does matter and will make a huge difference in years to come for the Commodore community.”

The new dean of the education school at Johns Hopkins University is working on a five-year evaluation of the project with Living Classrooms.

The Abell Foundation salutes Principal Marc Martin; Talib Horne, vice president of Living Classrooms; Commodore Rodgers physical education teacher Andrew Hiavka; and Playworks’ coordinator Dakari Taylor-Watson. The Foundation salutes all, for effectively using physical education to achieve academic excellence.