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First Tee program gives students options

Deb Thill, left, looks on as Carter Koons takes a swing during a physical education course at L.B. Williams Elementary School on Tuesday morning. Thill, who is a physical education instructor in Mitchell, is currently teaching a two-week course called The First Tee, which encourages children to learn the game of golf. (Travis Mester/Republic)1 / 2
Dameon Hartinger takes a swing during a physical education session at L.B. Williams Elementary School on Tuesday. (Travis Mester/Republic)2 / 2

Things have changed a bit when it comes to the physical education courses at Mitchell elementary schools.

Gone are the days of limited curriculum.

And the Mitchell School District -- elementary physical education instructors Deb Thill and Gary Powers in particular -- would have it no other way.

At L.B. Williams, Longfellow and Gertie Belle Rodgers elementary schools, students are being introduced to a whole new set of activities that wouldn't have been possible just three years ago. The schools have added units that center around technology, such as the use of Nintendo Wii, Dance Dance Revolution and an interactive website that allows for users to develop their own aerobic routines. Instructors are also focusing more on less-commonly used athletic activities, like the two-week unit the schools are currently teaching, The First Tee National School Program.

"My goal as a physical educator is to introduce kids to all kinds of movement," Thill said following her third- and fourth-grade class on Tuesday morning at L.B. Williams. "Not every kid wants to play the standard sports, so I just want to introduce them to new things."

According to its website, The First Tee program strives to provide young people of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop life-enhancing values such as confidence, perseverance and judgment through golf and character education.

The Mitchell School District became a part of the program after a $1 million federal PEP Grant was allocated to a group of 24 school districts to help fund resources that would increase the amount of time students spend being active.

"PEP Grants are very, very difficult to get and there is a lot of things that go into a district being allocated funds," said Mitchell School District Curriculum Director Marilyn Forst, who is responsible for the distribution of the funds among Mitchell schools.

Though it has opened up the curriculum, the addition of the new units has not forced schools to abandon mainstream activities.

Forst said it took time for the grant, which was allocated over a three-year timeframe, to make its way to the elementary level. Mitchell High School used money from the grant to redo its weight room and the middle school added a workout facility with its portion of the funds last year.

Now it's been the elementary school's turn to take advantage of the grant, which has a goal of adding 150 minutes of organized and supervised activity to each elementary school student's schedule.

Thill, who learned of The First Tee program at a national physical education teacher's convention in Tampa, Fla., a few years back, has been one of the biggest supporters of the program because of the diversity it has brought to her classroom.

"If you can keep your kids active, it doesn't matter what you're doing, and now this is just another avenue that can provide that," said Thill, who has two children of her own that attend L.B. Williams and take part in The First Tee Program. "As a kid, I would have loved to have had someone teach me how to golf. It's something that is exciting for me to introduce the kids to something that they could be successful with."

The First Tee program, which Thill and Powers instruct to 675 students in kindergarten through fifth grade twice a week, involves a three-level teaching system in which Level 1 is for beginners to get started with the game of golf. Currently, Thill is teaching the first level to her students and hopes to move to more advanced lessons in the coming years.

The program is sponsored in part by partners such as the PGA Tour, the USGA and the Augusta National Golf Club.

"The kids are loving it," Thill said. "This is their favorite class to come to, and I just hope we can continue to move forward with this type of teaching in the future because this is the direction that physical education is going.

"The goal of this district is to get kids interested and active, and this is just another form of that. But, of course, we know that none of this would have been possible without the money we were able to receive from the grant."