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SPARK’s 30 Year Anniversary Series, Part 1

SPARK is now 30 years old? How quickly the years passed. As the Principal Investigator on the original grants, you could say I am the father of SPARK. So, I will give a father’s point of view on SPARK’s life.

The idea of SPARK began as a gleam in my eye in 1987 when I was a young researcher in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego. I had decided to devote my research career to improving physical activity, and I was ready to write my first big NIH grant proposal. I wanted to come up with a physical activity intervention approach targeting children or adolescents that would have the potential to affect as many children as possible. It was obvious that physical education was the biggest physical activity intervention for youth. Because PE could potentially impact virtually the entire population of youth throughout their school careers, I decided it was the best focus for the study.

Jim and Thom

Because I had no expertise in PE, I invited Dr. Thom McKenzie to join the effort. I knew Thom had many skills related to sports, measurement, and PE that complemented my strengths. Fortunately, he accepted, and we began to develop the proposal. I would not realize until a few years later that Thom was among the very best PE experts in the country (and the world). My good fortune of finding an ideal collaborator early in the process became a rule I tried to follow throughout my career. Getting the right team is essential, and bringing in expertise outside of my own discipline is generally preferable.

We agreed on several ideas that drove the design of the intervention and the study.

  • There was much room for improvement in PE, so a new PE program was justified.
  • Evaluations of PE programs were rare, and it was clear a major study could provide valuable evidence.
  • The PE program would be designed primarily to enhance students’ health, but it had to be consistent with existing standards so it could be adopted anywhere.
  • Physical activity was the heart of the program. The program would be designed to maximize physical activity both during PE class and out of school. Other goals of PE, such as teaching sport skills and social skills, would be done using physical activity whenever possible.
  • PE classes would be inclusive of all skill and fitness levels, provide positive experiences with PE and physical activity, and be feasible for classroom teachers to implement with a modest amount of training. What I call “PE malpractice” was eliminated: no using activity as punishment, no students choosing teams, no using students as targets, no elimination games, and minimal standing in line.
  • “PE homework”, or what we call Self-Management Training, was developed to promote physical activity outside of school. Students were taught to set their own goals, parents were involved, and there were small incentives.
  • We decided to target elementary schools, because the PE situation was dire, with many (most?) PE classes taught by classroom teachers with little or no training in PE. We thought we could make a big difference if we could prepare classroom teachers to deliver active, fun PE. These ideas led to our study design with 3 conditions: (a) usual PE taught by classroom teachers, (b) SPARK PE taught by trained classroom teachers, and (c) SPARK PE taught by PE specialists (the ideal scenario).
SPARK study group

Thom and I recruited a larger team of investigators, and we spent a year making decisions about study design, intervention design, measuring outcomes, and developing a relationship with a school district where the study would be conducted. Oh yes, we had to come up with a name, and “SPARK” turned out to be a fun name that is still going strong. The proposal took a year to write because we debated every decision. I think of that year of writing as the “conception” of SPARK.

Surprisingly, the SPARK grant was funded on its first submission. We can think of the funding of the study in 1989 as the “birth” of SPARK. The infancy was spent writing the curricula for SPARK PE, self-management, and teacher/staff development workshops. We also assessed how well the students liked the PE classes (very much!) and developed all the measurement procedures. SPARK’s childhood was conducting the study. When the evaluation results were known, we considered that we had a very positive report card, with multiple positive outcomes, including physical activity, fitness, sports skills, and academic achievement.

We immediately made plans to begin disseminating SPARK to local schools. Because we had no outside funds to support the program, we had to rely on a fee-for-service approach. We had no idea whether school administrators would pay for improved PE, but we soon learned there was a desire to improve PE. Teachers and administrators were aware that most of their PE programs were not serving students well, and they wanted to do better. Since most schools had not spent any money on PE materials or staff development in many years, they were willing to pay for a program with documented positive results. Paul Rosengard, who was the lead PE teacher and trainer during the study became director of dissemination. We worked with the San Diego State University Research Foundation to market, sell, and deliver the program on a non-profit basis.

MSPAN team

To our surprise, the “business” grew. I consider the adolescence of SPARK to include the early dissemination efforts and the M-SPAN grant, which stands for Middle-School Physical Activity and Nutrition. The idea of this grant was to improve eating and physical activity on campus only through policy and environment changes. There was no direct classroom education of the students. M-SPAN was also an opportunity to develop and evaluate a health-oriented PE program for middle schools that was designed for PE specialists to implement. The intervention increased physical activity throughout the school day, and the PE intervention also led to students being more active in PE class, even though class length and frequency did not change. So, we began disseminating SPARK middle school PE and the after-school (“Active Recreation”) component as well.

I think of SPARK’s adulthood as starting when we licensed the SPARK name and intellectual property to Sportime (a PE equipment company) that was soon bought by School Specialty Inc. SPARK continued to grow, we added new programs in K-2 PE, Early Childhood physical activity, and High School PE, among others. A national network of talented, certified PE “trainers” was recruited and supported, SPARK moved into the electronic age with electronic curricula and support materials, and SPARK even made partnerships in China and India. SPARK staff have trained tens of thousands of teachers in thousands of schools, and improved the lives of millions of students. We estimate close to 2 million youth every day are active in SPARK PE and other programs.

Although it is logical and desirable that a health program, shown by research to be effective, would become widely used over decades, it is actually a rare outcome. That makes SPARK even more special, and in my fatherly role, it makes me prouder of SPARK, and it makes the whole experience particularly fulfilling as a health researcher.

30-year anniversary logo

Now at 30 years, SPARK is a mature adult. We celebrate the positive impact we have had on children’s health, school performance, and quality of life. We are grateful for the dedicated staff and trainers who have made all this happen. We appreciate the teachers, school administrators, health professionals, and concerned parents who have advocated to have active, enjoyable PE in every school, strong PE laws that are enforced, and opportunities for students to be active throughout the school day. The SPARK founders are particularly enthusiastic about our new partner, Gopher Sport. After considering several interested new partners, we selected Gopher Sport as the best prepared to lead SPARK into a healthy and vibrant middle age. As founders, we are pleased that SPARK continues to implement the lessons of the early research, and the evidence base supporting SPARK’s effectiveness is still growing. Over the years, public health has embraced PE, and the PE field increasingly recognizes the importance of what Thom McKenzie calls “HOPE: Health-Optimizing PE”. That was our vision at the beginning, and that remains our vision for the future.

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