Here’s something you never heard as a kid: “Pad up, it’s time for PE class.” But students at Riverside Elementary School in Grants Pass, Oregon, are used to that by now, as skateboarding has become a part of their physical education curriculum. The program, called Skate Pass, is the product of a company based in Colorado, and was brought to Riverside by educator Jordan Werner, whose dedication to changing the way students, parents, and administrators think about physical education is making positive waves in his community.
The central focus of Skate Pass is safety and the basics of skate. Students in third, fourth, and fifth grade learn how to use helmets and pads properly, as well as how to fall as safely as possible on gear that is custom created to not scuff or scratch the gym floor. For Mr. Werner, the primary goal is to introduce kids to a new sport and also to widen the scope of activities to engage students of varying interests.
“There’s been a complete shift in physical education in the last few years that really takes things away from a focus on just developing physical fitness. Now the approach is based on developing physical literacy,” he says. “A part of being physically literate is being able to move in a variety of different ways in a variety of different environments — and to set people up to be healthy and to be able to move and be physically active for their lives.” The practical application of that approach is to focus on lifestyle activities, to foster a love for physical activity that lasts beyond gym class. And action sports are perfectly suited to this new way of thinking.
This is his fourth year with the program, but getting it approved wasn’t a trivial process. During his master’s degree training, Mr. Werner was a student-teacher for the first teacher in Oregon to implement Skate Pass, and he saw how well received it was. “I got to see this program in action,” he says. “The fact that kids get to skate in the gym, but they’re not allowed to skate outside. … ‘No skateboarding at school, but if you’re in PE it’s fine.’ I thought that was kind of neat. And from there it was just something I wanted to do. It does a lot for kids in a lot of different ways. Kind of a way to reach a different type of student that doesn’t like the traditional PE, that doesn’t have any interest in basketball skills or volleyball or a traditional PE activity.”
Skate Pass was one of the first things he proposed when he got hired at Riverside, but it took him three years of advocating. He had low expectations when he initially brought it to his principal. “I proposed it to her being like, ‘I know this is probably not going to fly,'” he says. “She politely and professionally told me no.” He told her he appreciated her perspective but that he was going to keep pushing for it, because it’s a program that he believes in that goes right to the core of his teaching philosophy. “Perseverance can allow creativity within the education system,” he says.
It eventually worked out after he did a ton of legwork making the case, and he credits the folks at Skate Pass for helping him with some of the vital information he needed to get the program approved. Of course, approval was just the first hurdle. Skate Pass is a fairly affordable program for what it comes with — any action sports fan knows that outfitting one rider with full safety gear plus the skateboard can get pricey. Imagine outfitting an entire class. But for funding, Mr. Werner found help in the community of Grants Pass, from the PTA, some local businesses, and a grant from Skate Pass.
“I had to go out on my own and seek the funding that way, and it was surprising how quick that all fell into place,” he says. One of the results of his search for funding, an idea that originated in his meeting with the Love Abounds Foundation, which is affiliated with Dutch Bros. Coffee, was to create a scholarship program for a fifth grader to win a new skateboard setup — a brand-new helmet and board, a scholarship that he’s now awarded three times with a fourth due this year. Love Abounds was also one of the funding sources he secured to bring Skate Pass to his school.
We asked Mr. Werner if any kids or parents have issues with skateboarding in PE, and he says there have been a few over the years, but it’s really rare — and there’s always that potential for any of the activities in PE class, not just skate. His example? “We started unicycling this week, and there’s a couple kids that are like, ‘I don’t want to do it.'”
Hold up. Did you say unicycling? He did. It turns out Mr. Werner has put together a curriculum that would be the envy of a fancy private school with a huge tuition — and he’s done it at a public elementary school in a low-income district. In addition to skate and unicycle, some of the other units in his curriculum are: yoga, cup stacking, disc golf, aerobic dance, ultimate frisbee, and he’s currently seeking funding to build a rock wall to add climbing to the rotation. “My curriculum is a little bit different,” he says. “Not as different as I’d like it to be, but it’s getting there.”
The reactions he’s had to his unique curriculum have been overwhelmingly positive. Even some parents who may be skeptical at first come around after seeing the results. Mr. Werner tells a story about a mother in his district who told him that she has used his class as an example of why public education is working. “Skateboarding at Riverside has allowed me to present more experiences to these kids,” he says.
Mr. Werner’s teaching philosophy is the primary driving force, but he has a bit of a personal history with action sports and skating in particular that also motivates him. He rode BMX early on and then started skating at 10. He fell in love with it — he even had an eight-foot rail in his backyard, a testament to how his parents encouraged him to pursue his passion. Skateboarding was such a positive force in his life that he was surprised when he lost friends because of it, he says. Not because of anything he did. It was because some of the other parents didn’t like the idea of skateboarding and stopped their kids from hanging out with the skaters. Likewise, some of his extended family made comments about how skateboarders won’t ever amount to much in life. He’s surely proven them all wrong.
“This whole stigma around skateboarding when I was growing up was so annoying, because some of the coolest people, and really the smartest people, rode on a skateboard,” he says. “And what is wrong with that?” He saw in the Skate Pass program the opportunity to contribute to a more positive perception of skateboarding while fulfilling big goals as an educator, and it’s totally working. And if a successful several years of using skate to improve kids’ lives isn’t enough proof, how about this: Mr. Werner was recently named the Oregon elementary PE teacher of the year.
Here’s hoping Mr. Werner and the philosophy he and Skate Pass bring to education is a trend that continues to grow.