Sarasota school focuses on fitness

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SARASOTA - At Sarasota Military Academy, add rigorous exercise to the "Three Rs" of education. At a time when a Florida legislator proposed eliminating mandatory physical education in middle schools, the decade-old academy on Orange Avenue near downtown has made fitness a focus of its curriculum.

"I tell the students when they're first coming in that there are going to be push-ups in their future," says Dan Kennedy, the charter school's founder and headmaster. He designed the curriculum based on his belief that a sound body makes a more sound mind. Long before he sits down at his office computer, he gets up before 2 a.m. each day to exercise. "I run about 60 miles a week and I know the positive effect exercise has on just about all aspects of your life," he says.

Every student at the school participates in the ROTC program, and drills five days a week. Elective classes include volleyball, martial arts, fencing and horseback riding. This counters an increasingly prevailing view that schools need to focus on subjects tested by the FCAT, especially since school grades rely so heavily on it. State Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis, sponsored a bill that would eliminate the requirement that Florida middle schools teach physical education, telling ABC News that it was difficult for some schools to devote resources and time for gym classes while trying to focus on academic achievement.

Kennedy doesn't buy it. "We have found that the kids that are more physical generally have the highest GPAs," he says. They do well on the FCAT, too, he says. SMA earned an A-rating from the state in 2010 before slipping to a B last year, and he says that 97% of SMA students go on to college. For students raised on video games, cell phones and television, it can take some adjustment when they first arrive here. "For some of them," Kennedy says, "I think it's quite a drastic culture shock."

Students also say that the rigorous exercise does not detract from the reading, writing and arithmetic. "It actually helps," says junior Brianna Keaton. "It keeps me aware and not sleepy."

"Run, work out (and) you feel energized, pay attention in class," says senior German Bolanos.

Even the school music program centers around a marching band.