The bulldog is a fitting mascot for the teachers and students of James Madison Middle School in North Hollywood. Known for its strength and perseverance, the bulldog embodies the character of this diverse and energizing environment.
When physical education teacher Kenneth Bernas first joined Madison 13 years ago, the P.E. program lacked discipline and direction. Students were uninterested in being active, and were not inspired to run the required mile or PACER laps for FitnessGram testing.
“When we first got here,” Bernas says, “it was tough. It was really tough.”
Teachers were tasked with a difficult problem – how do you motivate students? Physical education teachers began to think of creative ways to incentivize students to improve their aerobic capacity. The P.E. program focused on a single, specific goal for its students – to improve their times in the mile run.
Over the next five years, the teachers sought opportunities to emphasize the importance of cardiovascular health through running competitions such as iFast, a challenge that records the fastest male and female student mile times; Century Club, a 100-PACER lap challenge; the 80 Club; and more.
“For the runners that are having a tough time with the mile, we try to help build a running strategy,” says Bernas. “We are just trying to get them past the mental block of thinking ‘I can’t do it.’”
Madison Middle School was given the opportunity to do more for its students’ fitness in 2014 as one of five schools chosen for a $40,000 fitness center grant from UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind. In the grant application, Bernas wrote about the faculty’s shared mission — to teach lifelong fitness and sportsmanship; to grow an inclusive, positive environment and to emphasize the power of teamwork.
The SBSM program supplemented Madison’s running program by introducing students to strength and cardio equipment. In that first year, Madison students improved their average aerobic capacity — a component of the FitnessGram — by 2 percent. Since then, Madison students’ average aerobic capacity has steadily increased. In the 2017/18 school year, it surpassed the Los Angeles Unified School District average by 10.4 percent.
In 2016, Bernas applied for the UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind Technology Grant to further support their efforts. Madison was awarded a large, portable countdown clock and programmable stopwatches to help the P.E. teachers track students’ times and coach them on pacing.
“These clocks have been amazing,” says Bernas. “Teaching them pacing is very challenging at this age, because the first thing they want to do is sprint. With these clocks and our pacing chart, we are able to have them set a goal time and help them establish a pace to achieve that goal.”
After years of hard work and dedication, P.E. teachers are seeing a change at Madison Middle School. Students have begun to adopt a running culture.
“You can ask any kid here and they know their mile time,” Bernas said. “They’re always trying to beat it.”
“I’m trying to beat my mile time which is 5:56,” says 7th grader Edgar Ramirez. “There are no classmates to beat because I am competing with myself.”
For 8th grader Alexis Avalos, running has been a staple in her family. “My dad told me about how he was a runner when he was younger and that his mile time in 5th grade was 4 minutes,” Avalos says. “I wasn’t really sure about mile times until I started running and then I started feeling all that passion for it.”
Avalos currently runs at 6:16 mile, one of the fastest in school. Her goal is to reach 5:59. “P.E. has helped me become a better runner,” she says. “All the girls always encourage and push me to do better. All my P.E. coaches encourage me to push myself to run faster. From there, I just keep pushing,” Avalos said.
Madison’s running program has transformed the school physically, culturally and behaviorally. The P.E. program has helped the students who enjoy running become better, faster runners. It has also motivated and encouraged all students to become more active and push themselves to achieve more.
Beyond the fitness gains, Madison’s running program has changed the way its students behave and interact. Students can be seen running alongside their companions, encouraging them to beat their mile time, make an extra lap, or simply cross the finish line. The program has also encouraged teachers to work together to achieve a common goal.
Madison students have demonstrated the strength and perseverance of their bulldog mascot. The administration and faculty continue to make their school an open, creative and inclusive environment for all students.