Duluth elementary school students can expect another 45 minutes of gym time next year.

To maintain the time given to teachers to meet and talk about student data and teaching strategies, the Duluth school district has invested in a third physical education period within an eight-day rotation of “specialist time.”

Within that rotation, elementary students get physical education, music and media center time twice each for 30 minutes, and one 60-minute period of art. On the eighth day, there has been no specialist time. Next year, 45 minutes of physical education will be slotted in to that day.

This year - the first year the entire district was afforded teacher meeting time within the school day - substitute teachers were used so staff could meet. But because of the widespread substitute teacher shortage, the district needed to find a more reliable way to allow that time, said Mike Cary, curriculum director for the district.

Elementary principals said more physical activity would be the best thing, he said.

“They saw a lot of positive benefits with students on the days they had extra activity,” he said, speaking of the two 30-minute chunks within that eight-day rotation. “They felt that additional physical activity would have more positive far-reaching effects.”

Lester Park Principal Sue Lehna said her students wrote to her at the beginning of the year asking for more physical education, and she’s also heard the request from parents.

“We’re in a city and area that gets caught inside a lot because of weather,” she said. “Teachers do a great job of incorporating activity into the classroom, but it’s really great when they get into a phy ed setting.”

Research shows that taking time from academic subjects doesn’t hurt test scores, said Josh Gorham, a public health nurse for St. Louis County who has been working with area schools.

“In fact, increasing physical education has been correlated with better test scores,” he said. “Movement is like a light switch for the brain; it gets all areas of the brain working together.”

That means more focus, and decreased anxiety for students, Gorham said.

The amount of physical activity scheduled in schools has decreased over time as standards change and teachers spend more time on core areas.

The move will create a scheduling hassle for some schools, “but people are thrilled about phy ed in a big way,” said Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers and a media specialist at Laura MacArthur Elementary.

Ideally, the district will move back to 45 minutes a day for all specialist time, she said, noting state funding would need to be increased.

The 45 minutes of additional physical education is expected to cost the district about $360,000, and has been budgeted toward student achievement efforts. The teacher meetings, commonly known as professional learning communities, have been touted as critical to improving student performance and educational programming, and are used throughout the country. Next year, elementary teachers will meet once a week after school.

Homecroft Principal Cher Obst stressed the importance of those meetings, largely because of the instructional help. Teachers meet to compare results from a quiz, for example, and if they see that many kids got the same thing wrong, “it helps them figure out a way to reteach,” she said.

Duluth’s middle and high schools already use school staff to fill in when teachers meet. Money was invested this year for paraprofessionals and other staff to fill in during the time when teachers had formerly been assigned to cafeteria duty or a study hall, for example. That frees up teachers to gather.