The New Paltz High School’s wellness center was formally opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony during the Board of Education meeting on December 9. Gleeful physical education teachers gushed over the transformation of the former weight room into a space that’s intended to finally recognize that mind and body are part of the same person. Festooned with athletic logos and lined with row upon row of state-of-the-art exercise equipment, the cavernous room still has ample empty floor space to further the mind/body wellness curriculum which will be offered within its walls.
Coach Mike Vance described the two-year process of getting the funding ($300,000 over two fiscal years) approved and renovations completed as “stressful,” but he was brimming with excitement as he spoke about what’s to come. The concept underlying the wellness center is that academic performance is linked to physical fitness, and that’s nothing new to any of the faculty members on hand. This is something they were all taught in college themselves, but it’s taken a long time to reach the point of being implemented here. “This is to get kids ready to learn,” he said, and it’s supported by research linking physical conditioning to academic performance and mental health.
The wide variety of cardio equipment — treadmills, stationary bikes, rowing machines — can be used in a solitary fashion by students listening to audio books, but the teachers also expect to be able to put together group competitions that measure distance traveled on real-world maps, allowing for example the kids to walk from Florida to Cuba (New York, of course). The curriculum is structured around “lifetime sport activity units,” designed to form a habit of physical fitness that isn’t inextricably linked to competitive athletics. In addition to working on the heart rate (which can be tracked with fancy new monitors), there will be mindfulness activities as well that will include meditation, breathing exercises and exercises in grounding one’s thoughts and emotions. “Kids leave here calm, they leave here happy,” said Coach Nicole Vitale, who has been incorporating mindfulness into the curriculum for some time already.
Students will make their own fitness plan, including students who aren’t necessarily comfortable with exercise. That’s modeled on a standard class for physical education teachers, in which they learn about lifetime health and how to promote it. Putting together such a plan is an opportunity for the child to learn to seek opportunities for physical activity, understand how to incorporate warming up and cooling down and how to use available equipment safely and responsibly.
Superintendent Maria Rice has promised that protocols will be in place to ensure that individual students can utilize the space and that it’s not entirely capitalized with classes and sports teams. Those protocols were not specifically introduced during this opening ceremony.