Among local skateboarders, the spot on 12th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A where wooden ramps and metal-topped ledges are set up most afternoons is known as 12A. For the 9th and 10th graders of East Side Community High School, it is gym class.
What started in February as an after-school program run by a volunteer has turned into what school officials believe is New York City’s only skateboarding class for credit, one of a range of offbeat physical education electives like dancing, martial arts and spinning newly available in city schools. At 10:30 most mornings, 22 students pour onto the school’s basketball court and, after a few standard exercises, begin maneuvering on borrowed boards.
“I just wanted to try a new sport,” said Diana Castro, a 15-year-old sophomore, who had never skateboarded before taking the class this fall but who now sometimes practices after school, too.
Jade Fellows, another sophomore, said she did not like the standard gym classes offered at the school — or, for that matter, other electives. “We only have, like, art, dance or computer,” Jade said. “I wanted to try this.”
The teacher is Billy Rohan, a professional skateboarder and the director of skateboarding and skate park development for Open Road, a nonprofit organization that has been working with the city since the 1990s to involve potential users in the design of public parks. Because he is not a certified teacher, he is accompanied on the court by Tom Mullen, the assistant principal, or a substitute teacher.
Mr. Mullen said that he had seen an improvement in attitude among the students taking the skateboarding class, and was eager to track whether that might lead to a change in academic performance.
New York City high school students must complete at least seven semesters of physical education, with some classes meeting twice a week, others three times. Most of these classes are the standard fare of basketball and volleyball, or maybe some makeshift relay races on a rainy day. But there have been yoga classes scattered throughout schools for years, and Lehman High School in the Bronx recently started a class in capoeira, a Brazilian martial art based on dance and rhythm.
“I think it’s important to have a wide range of electives,” said Lori Rose Benson, the Department of Education’s director of fitness and health education, explaining that she had tried to shift the focus from a more traditional approach to creating “an overall culture of fitness.”
Ms. Benson said she wanted to teach children that fitness is more about the result than the process. “For most of my life I hated phys-ed class, and it wasn’t until high school that I was able to get into the weight room,” she recalled. “It was a really pivotal moment in my life, and we’re hoping to have those similar experiences for other students.”
She said that East Side’s skateboarding program, which officially became a class in March, fits into that philosophy, because it is an activity that incorporates balance and flexibility and can easily translate into an after-school pastime. Though some schools around the country have been cutting back on physical education in the face of budget cuts and a renewed emphasis on basic academic skills, Ms. Benson said New York City has not.
On the East Side basketball court one recent morning, Mr. Rohan, 27, led the class in calisthenics and stretching, maneuvering around the cluster on his skateboard in loose-fitting trousers, a baggy sweatshirt, Vans Half Cab sneakers and big sunglasses. The only thing that marked him as a gym teacher was the whistle around his neck.
Tyriq Halloway, a sophomore, helped Mr. Rohan open a shipping container where the skateboards and helmets — donated by CCS, a mail-order company that sells skateboarding equipment, and Zoo York, a skateboard company — are stored.
Then the students began darting back and forth across the smooth surface of the court to gain familiarity with steering and pushing. Next, they split into groups by gender; unlike the male-dominated world of professional skateboarding, the class has as many girls as boys. The boys were led by Mr. Rohan, who started skateboarding at age 7, and the girls by Desiree Billett, who has run skate clinics for KCDC, a Brooklyn skateboard shop, and other companies.
While the after-school program features a full complement of moveable ramps and other skateboard obstacles, most students here are not advanced enough to use them in class. Before trying any tricks, they must learn to push and steer properly.
Afterward, Ms. Billett taught the girls to ollie, essentially a jump with the skateboard that is the foundation of nearly every other skateboarding trick.
But Mr. Rohan had promised the boys they could play dodgeball, so they put the boards away and spent the final minutes of class winging rubber balls at one another, looking like, well, gym class.