SHEPHERD — The mezzanine at the Shepherd High School gym currently holds wrestling mats and softball nets and not much else.
But by the time students are ready to start the school in August, the mezzanine will be Shepherd’s newest fitness center.
Students of all ages in Shepherd Public Schools will become as fit as they want to be, thanks to a $467,000, three-year grant that will bring workout equipment and other gear that’s both fun and cool to the school.
John Barta, who teaches physical education and health at the school, learned last month that after three unsuccessful tries he’d landed a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) grant administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
Sixty-seven programs nationwide — but only two in Montana, Shepherd and Hayes-Lodge Pole on the Fort Belknap Reservation —received more than $33 million in funding for the 2014-15 school year.
Shepherd schools will receive almost $352,000 initially, Barta said, with nearly $60,000 coming during each of the next two years.
“There’s no way a school community our size could have come up with that kind of money,” he said.
About 250 students attend Shepherd High School. “Our whole PE budget (for equipment) is $600 per year,” Barta said, and that’s divided among three teachers.
At the end of the three-year grant funding cycle, Shepherd’s newest fitness center will become a community asset open to all residents.
“We are always trying to get community members into our schools,” said A.J. Poepping, Shepherd High School principal. “Something like this will give the community a good place to work out” at a place close to home, he said.
Barta, a former mathematics teacher, has big plans to help students in grades K-12 start getting fit the fun way.
A series of stationary bicycles will be hooked up together and to a road race video simulating the Tour de France or other bike race. Using a computer program, students can race against each other across the Alps, if they like.
Other workout equipment, such as treadmills and elliptical machines, will embrace the exer-gaming concept, which combines, as the name implies, exercise with video game skills.
Dance Dance Revolution is one example; Barta said he plans to purchase similar fun workout machines for elementary-age students. A traverse rock-climbing station — across, rather than up and down — also is in the works.
One video game-workout machine promises to be a kick in the pants for some students: A kick-boxing video game will allow students to accumulate points for kicking the tar out of their virtual opponent.
“As a kid, how can you not be excited?” Poepping said. “Mr. Barta is doing a great job getting kids interested in improving their health.”
That’s most easily accomplished by spicing up the requisite toil with a little excitement and friendly competition, Barta said.
“The whole idea is to make exercise fun,” Barta said Friday morning while standing where the new equipment will be in just a few months. The goal is to have each student want to put in 60 minutes per day, which includes about 30 minutes outside of their PE class.
In a separate grant, the school district will also receive new heart monitors that will electronically relay workout vital signs to Barta’s computer.
According to the U.S. Department of Education website, PEP grants are designed to help students eat better and to engage in more physical fitness activities. The grant is renewable twice after the 2014-15 school year, but at the smaller funding levels, Poepping said.
“We should be able to meet the requirements by completing the paperwork,” he said. “We are hoping for transformation” among students, he added.