High-Tech High School Fitness

Buffalo Grove High School
Buffalo Grove, Ill.

By Kyle Ryan

As schools around the country face budget cuts, physical-education programs often become casualties. For some kids, school can be the only place where they exercise, and once that is gone, little stands in the way to slow down the nationwide obesity epidemic.

Then there's Buffalo Grove, Ill. A suburb of Chicago, it's home to the 2,000-student Buffalo Grove High School, which exists in a sort of parallel universe to the rest of the world. Not only does the school have 26 different sports for students, it also has a weight-training and cardio room that's nicer than most health clubs, with 14 selectorized weight stations, 18 cardio machines, free weights and three televisions.

The weight and cardio machines use Fitlinxx, a computerized workout-tracking program. The system installs directly into new or existing fitness machines, which are then linked via a network to a database that tracks users' results. Students have personalized settings for their workouts, and the computer monitors them, making sure they lift correctly and at the right speed. Students begin workouts by visiting a kiosk that loads their workout information into the machines, then at each station, using a personal code, they activate the machines for their specific workout.

Sound nice? It is, according to Dr. Joe Scarpino, who heads up the school's P.E. programs. Scarpino has been with the school since it opened in 1973, when the all they had was a weight room in the basement. The setup improved a bit over the years, but nothing compared to what he has now.

The whole idea came from the school's principal.

"The principals in district 214 receive a lump sum to spend on their buildings to upgrade whatever they want to do," Scarpino says. "In 2000, he says, 'It's P.E.'s turn. I want you to build something that nobody else has. I don't just want weights; I want something better'—and he never gave us a price tag."

Scarpino and a team of five other people spent six months going to hospitals, health clubs and universities. There, they discovered the Fitlinxx program, which at the time was limited to hospitals and high-end health clubs. But Scarpino knew he wanted it, and he received the green light to push the program forward.

Even with money from the district, incorporating the computerized workout-tracking program required some extra money, as the system can be pricey to install. Eighteen months of fund-raising followed, where Scarpino and others "begged and pleaded" for money. Again, they had some high-tech help. Using computer assisted design (CAD) software helped bolster their pitch. Potential donors could see exactly where their money would go.

"It wasn't like, 'We need some money because we're opening up a weight room,'" Scarpino says. "It was, 'Why don't you contribute? This is what we're building, and this is what it's going to cost us.' And I think that technique put us over the top. People knew exactly what we were doing, exactly what they were buying and helping to buy."

When the new 5,000-square-foot room opened up in 2001, it had 2,500 square feet for selectorized weight and strength machines, and 2,500 square feet for cardio—and it was completely paid off. BGHS was the first high school in the country to incorporate the Fitlinxx program. The first year, the school had 5,000 kids use the equipment after school on their own time. That number jumped to 7,600 the second year. A curriculum change forced the numbers down a bit the third year, but the school is on pace to break 7,000 again this year.

"It's like riding a firework," Scarpino says. "It just blasted off and gone straight up, and there's no stopping us."

By tracking who used the new programs, BGHS secured a couple of grants to help fund more programs. The school partnered with Alexian Brothers Hospital in Chicago to help supervise and review the program. Data indicated that 30 percent of the school's non-white females were participating, a startling number for a high-risk population. The success of the program in Buffalo Grove High School gave Scarpino another idea.

"There are five other high schools with similar populations—why don't we put this in every school, then you would have a district," Scarpino says. "We could be gathering data on 10,000 kids, not 2,000."

That helped secure a government grant, and now all six schools in the district have Fitlinxx—again, the first time that has happened in the country.

"It's simple to use, it reinforces all the concepts we teach in class, it's real time, interactive," Scarpino says. "It's like every kid, when he's working at one of our 34 stations, he has a coach in the computer monitoring his every move—speed and all that jazz. We couldn't be happier."

If the kids participate in one of the school's sports, they have a workout program based on their coaches' suggestions. Other kids use a default P.E. program. They also can access all of their workout information at home via the Internet. The room itself is designed not to intimidate; the only decoration on the wall is some modern art created by students—no macho jock posters or even a school mascot (the Bison).

"When we bring the kids in as freshman," Scarpino says, "we tell them, 'You know, there isn't another place like this in the country. Your parents helped build this thing.'"

That's quickly followed by a directive to use the equipment properly and clean up after themselves, which Scarpino says has not been a problem.

Clean, attentive kids? State-of-the-art workout equipment that's nicer than what's at most health clubs? A principal practically giving a teacher a blank check? High School Bizarro World indeed.

"I enjoy talking to people about this," Scarpino says, adding he sometimes forgets about his unique setup. "It's like, doesn't everybody have this?"

Buffalo Grove High School's Bison Fitness Center: http://bghs.dist214.k12.il.us/Techvisit/Pages/Fitcenter.html

Fitlinxx: www.fitlinxx.com

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