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Merrimack Valley

November 25, 2012

Exercising their bodies and their brains

Lawrence school adds physical activity, hours to boost student performance

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.

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