Between 9 a.m. and 2:55 p.m. every day of the school week and throughout the school year, you will rarely, if ever, find P.E. coaches Jan Connell and Jeff McDaniel sitting, except for the small window of time they have for lunch.
In the gym, you will find music blasting from the speakers as children run some warm-up laps before learning a new game. Around Halloween, the gym is transformed into “Miss Bright’s Haunted House of Fitness,” an obstacle course. There’s also a “free running” or parkour course usually set up in the fall, and Christmas brings scooters for children to pretend to be reindeer pulling Santa and the Grinch game. You will see children whizzing by on a zip line as other students try to throw balls into their backpack in a fun version of Quidditch of Harry Potter fame. Volleyball, basketball, bowling, tennis, golf and archery are just some of the kinds of sports taught in a year of P.E.
Bright is among only 3.6 percent of elementary schools that offer daily or at least 150 minutes per week of P.E., according to a School Health Policies and Practices study for the Centers for Disease Control. The gym and GMAC (outdoor track and field) are constant hives of activity. At Bright, students also have recess every day.
P.E. has a long and storied history at Bright and has been the force behind creating and maintaining several traditions such as the picnic, high jump, faculty and fifth grade volleyball and softball games, and gym show, which got so big and popular it evolved into a program utilizing our new athletic fields.
The integration of physical activity goes back to the days when founder Mary G. Bright led the school. She believed in happy minds and bodies. While she did not provide a class like we see in P.E. today, her reports to the Board of Trustees mention the importance of sports and recess. In 1931, Miss Bright bragged “…as we had unusually good football material, we engaged a coach for a few weeks, and we had several very excellent games.” The team played at Chamberlain Field of the then-University of Chattanooga and often drew spectators. One year, teacher Margaret Ellen McCallie donated basketball equipment for the playground, and a basketball coach came every day.
With all the emphasis on playing sports and partaking in extracurricular activities, one might think children get enough running, jumping and playing after school. Research and observation tell a different story. Just ask Jan Connell, who has been teaching P.E. at Bright since 1987. She wrote her master’s thesis at Middle Tennessee State University in 1976 about integrating P.E. with academics. “People laughed about it,” she said. Connell taught first grade in a little rural school in Unionville before moving to Chattanooga and was asked to teach the teachers how to include physical activity in their classes. “They hated it. It was something else they had to do,” she recalled. “We didn’t even have a playground. The parents got involved. We built equipment out of tires and had swings from the trees.”
“Now schools are dropping P.E., but that’s what’s increasing academic levels – the motion and the movement. It increases the serotonin levels and endorphins that make you feel good inside, and it increases brain stimulation for learning,” she said.
By the time Connell joined the P.E. program, it had been in the care of Bob Cutrer, coach and mentor remembered by alumni from 1975 through the 1980s and early 1990s. Cutrer, who retired last year from McCallie School but was called back to help coach tennis, taught for a time at Bright with Martha Bass, then Linda Bellis and also Connell. He became very fond of his first group of fifth and sixth graders, which included Cate Tinkler Mueller ’77. “He was young. I remember most of all the other teachers were as old or older than our parents. He had a lot of new ideas and enthusiasm,” she said. One of those ideas was the high jump, an Olympic sport that was evolving as the “Fosbury flop” became an acceptable way to clear the bar. The flop allowed jumpers to go over the bar back first instead of feet first with the scissors kick or western roll. The equipment Bright had at the time was somewhat hazardous if the child missed the bar or landing area, so parents chipped in and bought a big green “Port a Pit” to cushion the landing.
With the new equipment, Cutrer held the first high jump competition with fifth and sixth graders in spring 1976. The idea behind the competition was for the students to set individual goals, but it was also a way for Cutrer to showcase the P.E. program.
The high jump was a standout memory for Matt Levine ’84, who recalled winning the event as a sixth grader and using it to propel him into the world of track through his days at McCallie and Yale, as a track coach at the University of Pennsylvania and as a 400-meter hurdler in the 1996 Olympic trials. He is now an orthopedic surgeon in the Washington, D.C. area. “There is no question I got started in sports at Bright School, and it has directed the rest of my life,” he said. Levine even recalled enjoying the President’s Physical Fitness tests because “we were competing with everyone in the country and our classmates.”
The teachers vs. sixth grade volleyball game also became an annual event, and students made signs to support both sides. The current version has fifth graders on teams with teachers, and it’s still a spectacle with the teams, in costumes, running into the gym to theme music.
But the gym show was the big event. “It was to celebrate all 350 kids and let them perform for their parents and peers,” Cutrer said. “Everyone had a chance to shine.” He meticulously planned the routines, manually spliced the music together, created maps of equipment for each grade and assigned older students to help move the equipment. “I didn’t sleep for three weeks,” Cutrer said, recalling that the night before each show he would stay at school late to listen to all the music and envision the routines. Mueller had a special role in her first gym show with an individual routine on the balance beam. She had been taking gymnastics since first grade when Mrs. Bass urged her mother to take her to some classes. “It was a big deal for me to showcase what I spent my time doing outside of school,” Mueller said, noting how gymnastics gained popularity after the 1976 Olympics.
P.E. has evolved through the years, and some of the activities reflect what students are learning in the classroom. Connell and Jim Blair, one of Cutrer’s successors, created the Wilderness Trail to coincide with the fourth grade’s study of the 50 states. The trail in the gym takes students across the U.S. with a zip line over the Grand Canyon, for instance.
Jeff McDaniel, who joined Connell in 2015, has added his own touches to the program, including a class for junior pre-kindergarten and the new teachers vs. fifth grade basketball game. “I want the children to learn from me that it’s important to move and be active their entire lives,” McDaniel said.
This fall, Connell and McDaniel will help plan what’s become another traditional event: Bright Fit, a whole week dedicated to getting the entire family involved in physical activity. Watch for more details next spring.
Did you know?
Miss Bright also saw that funding was used to build or create spaces for physical play. The 1943 gift of $5,000 from Mr. and Mrs. Chandler King in memory of their son, Chandler King Jr., a Bright graduate who was killed in a car accident in college, was eventually coupled with another gift from the Kings in honor of their other son, John, a fighter pilot killed in World War II, to build a gymnasium at the school on Fort Wood Street in 1956. It was called the King Room. When the school moved to the current location on Hixson Pike, the gym was called the King Room, and it is now the current library. Portraits of the King boys and a plaque from the previous school building are displayed outside the library today.