If you thought you knew what a typical middle school physical education curriculum looks like, think again. The Jefferson Middle School (JMS) “Jaguars” indoor rowing program is a perfect example of how today’s students are learning not just traditional sports but also lifelong fitness skills. Thanks to a recent grant and partnerships, JMS students can now access 20 classroom rowing machines and instruction as “Jags in the Boat.”

Principal Jane Allaire says at least 90% of JMS students will have participated in the indoor rowing program by the school year’s end. “This is for lifelong learning, lifelong fitness,” she says. “It removes barriers for anyone. And some of our kids have barriers.”

“Middle school is the perfect age for this,” adds Cara Ann Barton, the school’s physical education and health teacher. “No matter what your skill level is, we can reach out to kids that have not thought of themselves athletically.”

Grant and Partnerships Offer Access to Rowing for Jefferson Middle School Students

JMS approached the grant to fund classroom rowing through partnerships and collaboration with several Thurston County schools, local boat clubs and community organizations. The George Pocock Rowing Foundation (Foundation) funded a five-year grant for equipment and curriculum, with the support of the Olympia Area Rowing (OAR), and the Concept2 rowing products company. OAR also provides 10 Concept2 rowing machines, maintenance and expertise.

Jefferson Middle School has set aside space in a small gym to house the students’ indoor rowing program classes that were made possible by a grant and partnerships. Photo courtesy: Jefferson Middle School

“Our grantmaking centers around the values we all share and makes a significant impact across the Pacific Northwest,” says Foundation Executive Director Jenn Gibbons. “Our goal with this grant funding is to invest in projects and programs that will impact young people’s lives now and in the years to come.”

The Foundation designed the Ergometer Education (ERG ED) curriculum to bring rowing into school classes nationwide. The grant extending the program into Thurston County is part of a larger effort to increase access to those traditionally excluded from the sport of rowing. “Rowing is inclusive,” says Allaire. “And you can do it by yourself, or as part of a group,” adds Barton.

Under the grant, JMS will share the rowing equipment with seven other area schools, with OAR transporting the devices among schools. OAR’s Jim Bertolini trains school staff on how to teach rowing. Bertolini says he quickly saw the teachers and OAR had the same goals, which includes increasing fitness and creating pathways to outdoor rowing if students are interested. “I really enjoyed teaching the teachers,” he says. “They were very enthusiastic. They understand the benefits for the kids.”

Jim Bertolini of Olympia Area Rowing, pictured here at the OAR boathouse on Budd Inlet, says the Jefferson Middle School indoor rowing program, creates pathways for kids to get out on the water and learn outdoor rowing. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

Jefferson Middle School Dedicates Space, Equipment and Classes for Student Rowers

The program provides 20 rowing machines, a comprehensive curriculum and teacher training, plus support over the next five years. Students attend ERG ED classes and use the equipment in a small JMS gym. Students track distance, calories expended and other workout measures on the ergometer rowing machines’ screens, while music plays so students can rock out while rowing.

Allaire says teachers also come to the gym to learn about the program. They see that students access the same machines and curriculum no matter their skill level, so it’s easy to participate. “With indoor rowing, the students are all in the same environment where they can flourish,” says Bertolini.

Allaire says the gym will eventually be a student wellness/fitness center, reflecting the JMS dedication to prioritizing students’ well-being by providing convenient access to fitness, teaching life-long fitness skills, and fostering equity and inclusion.

Jefferson Middle School Principal Jane Allaire (center) and physical education and health teacher Cara Ann Barton (right) explain that the Concept2 rowing machines enable students to track workout measures. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

‘Jags in the Boat’ Acquire Valuable Lessons for Lifelong Physical and Mental Fitness

Rowing teaches important skills to develop good physical and mental health. Allaire and Barton say students’ anxiety levels are high, but programs like “Jags in the Boat” build skills, independence and confidence, while giving students something else to think about. “A healthy body and a healthy mind are connected,” says Allaire. “We are building a wellness program for solid foundations.”

And that approach is well-established. Daniel James Brown’s book “The Boys in the Boat” recounts the true story of the University of Washington rowers who persevered to win the gold medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics. The team’s eight-oared racing shells were designed by legendary Seattle boatbuilder George Pocock, for whom the Foundation is named. He believed that rowing is a sport for all ages.

Brown wrote that rowing gave the UW students important life lessons. “They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves – a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values,” Brown wrote. “But the things that held them together – trust in each other, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another – those were also part of what America meant to all of them.”

Like the “The Boys in the Boat” decades ago, rowing teaches today’s Jefferson Middle School “Jags in the Boat” the same foundational life lessons.

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