Physical education teacher produces champions

The Associated Press

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LENOIR — Over her 26 years as health and physical education teacher for Lower Creek Elementary School, Kathy Terrell has taught about 9,100 students.

Those students have performed well enough in the North Carolina President's Challenge Fitness and Sports Awards Program to win the state's top award 15 out of the last 18 years.

Over the last six years, Terrell's kids have won the national title three times, have placed second twice and took third place once.

Talk about a dynasty. Put Terrell up there with Coach John Wooden and Coach K at Duke.

Terrell's response to those achievements?

"I just do the paperwork. The kids are the ones who do the work," she said.

Terrell -- who lives in Hickory and commutes roughly 24 miles every school morning to work -- loves her job. For her, physical fitness and knowing how to live a healthy lifestyle is as important as math or reading. In that regard, she knows she is fighting an upstream battle.

"I'm concerned we're going in the wrong direction as a society. Obesity is out of control," she said. "Our kids live in a whole different world. When I was a kid, we used to go out to play. I wouldn't come in before dark."

Now school may be one of the only places our children get any exercise, she said, and the state mandate is only 30 minutes a day.

"Kids today sit in front of the TV or computer screen. They play video games for hours," Terrell said.

She admits that neighborhood safety and whether or not a parent or guardian is in the home when a child comes home has changed the childhood landscape.

"You don't ever see a kid out riding a bike anymore," she said.

So Terrell's answer is a rigorous program that begins at kindergarten on the first day of school. By the time that child has completed fifth grade at Lower Creek, they have had plenty of opportunity to learn the value of exercise.

"My goal is conditioning kids for life. It's not about competition. It's about developing healthly, active kids - which affects their mind in a positive way," Terrell said.

Of course, competition is not all that bad, according to Terrell. Earning top honors in the President's Challenge has become the carrot at the end of the stick.

"The kids are very competitive. They want the championships," she said.

"That um, that when you win it makes you feel good," said 10-year-old Macy Penley, a fifth grader at Lower Creek when asked if ranking first or second in the nation, and first in the state was important.

While Terrell is somewhat reluctant about taking credit for the awards, her students and parents know what drives the efforts.

"If we didn't have Ms. Terrell pushing us, we wouldn't make it," said Anna Suddreth, a fifth grader at the school.

Terrell begins developing her students toward a fitter body through exercises that are fun for the children.

"Kids are having fun, but in a serious way so that they get healthy," said Debbie Indicott, who is a parent volunteer Terrell counts on as part of her "crew." Indicott got pulled in to assisting when she signed up at the beginning of her child's kindergarten year to help with the spring play day.

"She (Terrell) plans way in advance," said Indicott. "I've been a volunteer for six years."

Even the school principal gets into the act. Leigh Anne Frye was a student of Terrell's, and as principal, often joins in while the children are in Terrell's class.

"We want to model everything for the children," said Frye, "and that includes exercise."

Terrell keeps records of student accomplishments in the five events that are measured for the President's Challenge, and pulled out Frye's scores. As a fifth grader, Frye ran a 10:34 mile ("I'm a sprinter," said Frye), and scored 12.3 seconds in the shuttle run, which Terrell acknowledged as "decent."

Student records in the shuttle run and the mile remain goals many students hold as an incentive for their training. Miles Simon holds the boys' record in the shuttle run, 8.9 seconds and Kalyn Tysinger has the girls' record at 9.0 seconds. Abby Smith set the record for the mile in 2008 with a time of 5:52; and Josh Ingle set the boys' record back in 1998 at 5:23.

The President's Challenge is age and gender specific as far as scoring. The five events include the mile run, the shuttle run, curl-ups, v-sit or sit and reach, and either pull-ups or push-ups. A minimum standard is set for each event, again based on age and gender.

To qualify for recognition, students must pass all five tests at 85 percent or higher in their group.

Lower Creek's first success was in the 1993-1994 school year, seven years after Terrell first began teaching at the school. The school won with 35.69 percent of students qualifying.

"When I first started at Lower Creek, we had only 1 percent qualify. It took that long for the programs, clubs and my P.E. programs to start showing results," said Terrell.

The programs Terrell put into place at the school are a walking program, a pull-up club, a jump rope and trick jump rope clubs, as well as the daily P.E. program designed to work on some component of the fitness test each day.

Teachers also have game packets they use on days students don't have formal P.E., according to Terrell. They also utilize pedometers in class to work into math.

"The success that Lower Creek has achieved over the years is based on several factors, such as the dedication of our teachers and staff," said Terrell. "Involvement in community sports programs, parents encouragement also contribute. The most important part is the hard work and dedication of our students, and the pride they take in achieving this award."

It's a phenomenal record.

"I sent information about Ms. Terrell's program to Michelle Obama - who is waging a campaign on childhood obesity," said Frye. "I hoped to get something back and present that to Ms. Terrell."

So far, there's no response.

A news release was issued from Caldwell County Schools regarding the latest award for placing second in the nation in the President's Challenge. It mentioned that Terrell is "nearing her retirement."

"The rumors of my imminent retirement are grossly exaggerated," she said with a smile.

Still, she has marked the date three and a half years in the future.

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