Making a Difference for Urban Youths

Article excerpt


Daily secondary physical education and increased adolescent involvement in physical activity were recently announced as goals of Healthy People 2010 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). This is good news for physical educators, and we can hope that it will spark the creation of more meaningful and motivating physical education at a time of declining lescent interest (Siedentop & Locke, 1997) and participation (Satcher, 2000). Though this decline is widespread, the inability of secondary physical education programs to foster avid student participation is perhaps most acute in urban schools and among youths already at risk for academic failure (Martinek, 1997).

Creating engaging physical education programs in such settings is a challenge. The purpose of this article is to study curricular and pedagogical issues relevant to stressed urban high school environments and to propose some effective coping strategies for physical educators. We begin with a summary of issues affecting such environments and consideration of how each might influence student participation in physical education. This is followed by examples of content and teaching decisions that are important when one is working with atrisk youths in these settings. Finally, we consider how urban secondary physical education programs might forge mutually beneficial links with their communities.

What We Know About Urban Settings

In general, today's youths have difficulty visualizing and planning for their future because it is more difficult than ever before to figure out what skills, knowledge, and practices constitute good preparation for adulthood (Roberts, 1996). When adolescents are unsure of themselves and their future, or see little hope for leading a better life, their ability to make positive and health-enhancing decisions is further compromised (Hamburg, 1997). Frustrated youths frequently make "fast fix" or "big reward" choices (Hamburg; Roberts). Such choices may include neglecting academics to pursue success in sports, investing in nutritive supplements or dieting aids to enhance physical potential, or engaging in risky sexual behavior to gain a sense of family or belonging.

The erosion of adolescents' familial and social support networks also affects their daily decisions (Hamburg, 1997). Youths who do not experience a sense of belonging at home, at school, or in their community sometimes seek such a connection in ways that may be self-destructive (e.g., gang involvement, poorly chosen friendships).

In addition to these stresses, urban youths must deal with the complex array of limitations embedded in economically disadvantaged lives. The negative impact that poverty has on healthy behaviors may partly explain urban adolescents' lack of interest in physical education. For example, if youths do not have the opportunity to practice good nutritional habits, use safe fitness and play facilities, or participate in directed fitness activities, they may find it difficult to see how physical education is relevant (Collingwood, 1997).

In addition, urban play environments, which are frequently unmonitored, allow adolescents to implement their own, often hierarchical, rules, exemplified by "play-to-stay" street basketball. Rules such as these promote unfair competitive strategies that keep the strongest, biggest, and most skilled youths playing and the less able youths excluded. These practices are incompatible with good physical education, where teachers attempt to create appropriate and fair opportunities for all students to engage in meaningful activities. For students accustomed to "play-to-stay" practices, the rules of physical education classes frequently appear at odds with "real life," leading them to question the relevance of such classes.

Finally, violence or fear of violence in schools and communities can severely limit adolescent involvement in healthy physical activity. …