EAST PROVIDENCE — Jay Monteiro well remembers his days as an outstanding student-athlete at East Providence High back in the early 1980s. He also admits he recalls the simplicity in which his old gym classes were designed.
In the fall, boys would hustle to the locker room between classes, put on school logo-emblazoned workout clothes and play flag football or soccer, while – during the winter months – they'd pick makeshift teams and play basketball or volleyball, or even partake in sports such as gymnastics or floor hockey.
Come springtime, they'd return outdoors for a bit of softball, tennis, etc.
Nowadays, Monteiro serves as a physical education teacher at EPHS, and he explained how and why the concept of “gym,” as he knew it, has changed so dramatically.
Just a month ago, the health and physical education department, chaired by longtime mentor and coach John Gendron, completed the final phase of an initiative entitled “Fitness First.” Basically, the notion is to teach students about creating and sticking with a physical fitness program similar to one they would use at a health club.
Gendron and his fellow teachers finally opened a “Cardio Room” for their Townies about four weeks ago, and it's equipped with 10 elliptical machines, four treadmills and six exercise bikes, not to mention resistance-training (or weightlifting) equipment.
That area is the fourth addition to the department's “Fit for Life” campaign, though Gendron prefers the word “vision.” Over the past four years, his staff has redesigned the tiny old weight room into a “Circuit Room;” a former mini-auditorium into an “Aerobic Room” (with a dozen spin bikes); and an ex-shop area into the massive “Health and Fitness Center” (which includes eight state-of-the-art treadmills, a complete line of weight machines and free weights).
“It wasn't this way when I was here,” laughed Monteiro, who graduated in 1985 and has spent 22 years as a P.E. instructor. “Teaching physical education has changed so much over the years. This is not only physically-based but cognitively-based, too. Now it's more well-balanced, with students getting the opportunity to understand physical fitness concepts and how to apply them.
“We're also teaching them some anatomy; we'll show students the major muscle groups,” he added. “Say a kid is using a lat machine; we'll explain to them that they're working the latissimus dorsi (Latin for the 'broadest muscle of the back,' or the larger, flat, dorso-lateral muscle)' if they're doing squats, we tell them they're working their quadriceps and hamstrings; if they're bench-pressing, they're using the pectoral muscles; arm curls, the biceps, and so on down the line.
“We still offer the old sports – flag football, soccer, volleyball, softball, basketball, tennis – but, before every class, the kid will do 10 push-ups, 10 sit-ups and three-five minutes of cardiovascular work before they move on to a sport, or jumping on a spin bike or treadmill.
“This is expected of every student in the school, to follow the 'Fitness First' initiative,” he added. “It consists of cardio, flexibility, muscle strength and endurance and agility. The point of all of it is so they understand all of these components and how they go together, as well as apply it to their athletic performance, or simply staying healthy.”
Stated fellow P.E. instructor Matt Tsonos, who has taught at EPHS for eight years: “(P.E.) classes don't like they used to, that's for sure. When we were kids, we didn't know all of this stuff. Nobody taught us these things, unless we were on a school varsity or JV team.
“We're teaching them, in essence, how to train and how to take care of their bodies over the long haul, when they're 70, 80, 90, whatever,” he continued. “We're teaching them how to pursue their own personal fitness goals.”
Tsonos and Monteiro both noted they're instructing the teens not only about the physical aspect of training methods but also the mental. They give them written assessments on all components of physical fitness.
“Each kid must keep a log to document their goals and how they're progressing toward those goals,” Monteiro offered. “Whenever we give them a workout, or they tell us what they want to do that day, they're expected to finish it in that workout, then write it down in their logs.
“This is kind of the way it works in real life; you'll see personal trainers give their clients a log so they can keep track of what they're doing. Each class consists of an instructional piece – we give them a power points presentation – then we give the students the basic knowledge of, for instance, muscle endurance.
“We also show them how to do reps (repetitions) and sets to help them succeed. Then we give them the cognitive piece, understanding the basics of the particular muscles you need to work to achieve such endurance.”
Underclassmen are required to take three quarters of physical education every year, with the last quarter devoted to health. Because seniors are busy preparing their portfolios, they must enroll in two quarters.
Giving the kids their choice of what they want to pursue – be it time on a treadmill, exercise bike, spin bike, weightlifting machines, free weights, whatever – has created more interest in attending and, frankly, working harder.
“Without a doubt, kids seem more into it, and I think it's because these rooms look a lot like a health club,” Tsonos grinned. “It's become more personal. I believe the students are thinking, 'Hey, I'm not being told or forced to do this, I just want to.'
“Honestly, it's awesome,” he added. “I don't care what anyone says, but we're teaching these kids the essentials of leading a healthy life, that they can achieve their fitness goals by training in different realms three or four days a week. It's not like this takes a ton of time.”
Monteiro went further, stating he believes the Townies care more about P.E. class because of the many new pieces of equipment the department has added.
“It blows my mind, that we've been able to get all this equipment,” he said. “You know, of all the public high schools in Rhode Island – I can't speak for the private schools – we just may have the best and most complete fitness facility in the state. It's all been made possible by donations, fundraising and grants. No school district monies have been used to purchase any of the machines.”
In the “Aerobics Room,” students may choose to use the 12 spin bikes during their classes, or opt for activities such as Jazzercise, Tai-Bo, aerobic dance, step aerobics, etc. Those classes are taught by Kristin Bovi-Pallotta, Sarah Duarte and Bonnie Clayton.
And, in the Circuit Room, which includes an updated Vectra Fitness Circuit Gym (call it a revised Universal gym, one donated by Avalon Bank Properties of Providence), teens may elect to partake in resistance training; that is, using leg presses, abdominal curls, hip flexors, butt blasters and tricep extensions.
“All of these rooms are modeled after commercially like facilities,” Gendron said. “We couldn't have done this without the generous help of Performance Physical Therapy of Pawtucket (formerly East Providence). It donated thousands of dollars in resistance training equipment, as did Avalon and Frontline Fitness of Warwick.”
Gendron explained State Sen. Frank DeVall, a former EPHS assistant principal who now has the same job at Western Hills Middle School in Cranston, applied for grants and, with the General Assembly's help, donated about $6,000 in all to buy new equipment.
Other key cogs in the development of these rooms are Principal Janet Sheehan and Vice Principal Shani Wallace, an avid spinner. P.E. teacher Jon Stringfellow spearheaded a fundraising drive where students, instructors and staff sold bottled water. In all, he gleaned about $2,000. The Friends of Townie Athletics organization matched that amount, and it all went to purchasing weight training machines.
“This school now has three complete lines of resistance training equipment,” Gendron noted. “Each line is capable of providing students with a complete and total body workout. Think about it, now we can have up to four fitness/aerobics classes all at the same time. The four rooms can accommodate 35 students each for a total of 140 per period.
“Our P.E. department staff has done extensive research; we have solicited the help of many experts and professionals in the fitness field,” Gendron continued. “Additionally, Ms. Wallace has provided us with an expert from that field who has offered us valuable information.
“We've designed these rooms based on input from all our sources, (and) this design will benefit all students no matter what the ability level. These facilities can meet the needs of a variety of students – from beginners on the road to physical fitness to varsity athletes, and everyone in between.
“We know when these students leave high school, most will not go on to play football, basketball, baseball, hockey, tennis, soccer or swim. What they'll do, or what we hope they'll do, is go to college, and then, when they go to work, join a health club, gym or a YMCA.
“This is a perfect bridge to the future for them. As they leave us, they will be prepared to continue to make good, sound physical fitness decisions. I'm just so grateful for all the support we've received from the administration, the school, the community and outside businesses.
“This couldn't have been achieved without any of them.”