By Yadira Betances
After being in the classroom for 80 minutes, Guillermo Gutierrez went to the gym, where he ran and learned step techniques.
“I like it,” said Guillermo, 10, a student at South Lawrence East School. “It’s not just learning and listening, it’s building your brains and building your muscles.”
Three times a day, Guillermo and the 110 students in the Fifth Grade Academy at South Lawrence East break up their eight-hour day with exercise, dancing, soccer, running and stepping. They have breakfast, lunch and dinner at the school on Crawford Street. The last hour of their extended day, students work in small groups on specific skills including math and English or learning computer programming and robotics.
Principal A. Kevin Qazilbash wrote the proposal of intertwining academics and physical activity during the school day after doing research and studying comparable programs in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The fitness and academic program was launched in September.
“This is the optimum way for them to learn,” he said. “Research has found that kids learn more when they raise their heart rate by exercising before sitting in a classroom.”
In addition, students meet with their advisers and parents are called twice a month to get an update on their children’s performance. He said 40 percent of the school’s staff speaks Spanish, which helps in communicating with the parents.
The Fifth Grade Academy has 110 students and is broken down into two teams. There are nine teachers. There are also assistant teachers who help with physical education classes or take special education students to their classes.
“To be physically fit is a big part of being happy,” said Qazilbash.
An educator for 20 years, Qazilbash has a bachelor’s degree in finance from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University. He also received a distinguished Fulbright in teaching by the U.S. State Department. During his teaching career, he has worked in Baltimore, Md., and Somerville.
He used “SPARK”, a book by psychiatrist Dr. John J. Ratey, as a guide for the program. In the book, Ratey explores how exercising re-energizes the brain for better performance and is a defense against depression, Attention Deficit Disorder, and addiction. One of the case studies is a fitness program in Naperville, Ill. The program helped 19,000 students in the school district become first in the “world of science.”
In addition to incorporating academics and exercise, the Fifth Grade Academy has contracted top-notch people to help the students.
Among them are Gino Gordon and Sherman Cowan.
Cowan, a stepping expert, is a resident director at Wellesley College, where he has worked since 1997. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and history from the State University of New York at Oswego, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology also from SUNY-Oswego. Cowan, a major in the Air National Guard, has been in the service for 27 years.
Gordon is a former two-time first-team All-Ivy League running back at Harvard University. As a senior, Gordon was co-recipient of the Asa S. Bushnell Cup honoring the Ivy League football Player of the Year.
Gordon, who is an associate teacher at South Lawrence East, said playing sports taught him many lessons including perseverance and discipline.
“I’m glad fitness is included with academics. It’s not one or the other, it’s all the same. It may be tough, but it’s all about perseverance, having fun while keeping the academic aspect,” Gordon said.
South Lawrence East is the first school in Lawrence to implement the extended school day integrating classroom learning and movement. Fifth-graders at the school were chosen because the middle school had been designated a Level 4 school which have been underperforming in achievement, student growth and the statewide MCAS test.
The project is part of the turnaround program suggested by Lawrence Public School Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley.
“Reading over the research that said exercise is the miracle growth of the brain for kids, I thought, ‘Wow, this is could really help us.’ This is a fantastic opportunity to get real results for our students,” Riley said.
Riley said building healthy habits among students is a priority in Lawrence, where the obesity rate is the highest in Massachusetts.
On Tuesday, Gordon and Cowan were teaching stepping to students in small groups. Both men started a chant to kick off the dance, which includes rhythmic footwork, hand clapping, stomping and slapping the legs and head. The dance form originated in African-American fraternities in the 1970s.
“It takes a lot of discipline and teamwork, which helps them in other areas of their lives,” Cowan said.
“The fact that they’re working together, gaining leadership skills and teamwork doesn’t stay here. They’ll be able to use it wherever they go,” Qazilbash said.
Malvin Hernandez, 10, took a quick rest after doing the turkey run.
“By playing with your friends, it helps you learn more in the classroom,” Malvin said.
Damian Paniuga, 10, said he like the fitness and academic components of his school day.
“With the longer hours, I can talk to my friends in the gym and not in the classroom so I don’t get in trouble,” Damian said.
Before going home for the day, Ashley Urquiza and Litzy Silverio, both 11, quiz each other in subtraction and multiplication using flash cards. In another part of the room, Yamel Olivo plays “monkey in the middle” with Yandriel Cancel and Darlyn Vasquez. In the game, the student in the center has to answer subtraction questions as quickly as they can.
At the end of the day, Jennieca San, 11, and Joel Aguilar, 10, admit they feel tired.
Jennieca said the physical fitness and rigorous academics help her sleep better.
Qazilbash said 90 percent of the students like the extended day program.
Joceliz Laureano is not one of them.
“They should cut the hours because it’s too much,” Joceliz said. “It’s too much. I like the traditional school day better.”
She may not be happy with a longer school day, but that did not stop Joceliz from stepping with her friend Jazmine Toledo.
While students are doing exercises, teachers meet to go over lesson plans.
“What we’ve seen across the world is that we’re lagging behind in performance, so that extra time when used well can help kids,” Riley said.
“Kids are actually getting used to it. It’s part of the assimilation procession. We’re challenging our kids and they will rise to the occasion.”