CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- James Phares, to be sworn in as state superintendent of schools on Wednesday, grew up in Elkins. "I was a very active kid. Just about any evening, you'd find me out playing baseball, football basketball, Hide and go seek, tag, et cetera.
"Anyone who wonders if I will promote physical activity in the schools doesn't know me," he told the Gazette.
He comes into the office on the heels of ex-Superintendent Jorea Marple, who gained national attention for programs aimed at increasing child fitness and lowering obesity. Phares said he agrees with those goals.
One in four West Virginia fifth-graders now has high blood pressure. Twenty eight percent are obese. "That's unacceptable," he said.
His wife taught physical education and health for 25 years before she became a physical therapist. Two of his sons are PE teachers. "The whole family is physically active," he said. "The biggest slacker is me."
When he and his wife -- his childhood sweetheart -- moved back to Elkins, "we were driving around in our old neighborhoods, and I asked her, "What's missing?"
"There were no children outside playing," he said. "In my day, a kid couldn't go two blocks without getting into some game or some activity," he said. Now kids are inside on digital games, he notes, "and parents feel it's riskier now for kids to go outside."
He favors an increase in physical activity at school, he said.
"But here's the problem: Schools cannot find time to do adequate physical education. So there has to be other spots built into the day for physical activity."
A year ago, Marple challenged schools to add 15 minutes of physical activity to each child's day. "In Randolph, we made sure that every one of our schools had resources to do that," Phares said, "then we monitored to make sure they used them."
Randolph teachers say that Phares made it mandatory, directing that children should be up and moving around during every class period.
A good county superintendent "provides resources for schools so they can come up with their own plans," he said. "For instance, at Homestead Elementary, they start their day now with calisthenics and do math and word problems or recite things as they do them. At Tygart Valley High School, they walk the students down the hallway and through the gym.
"Probably the biggest thing I did to support it was I'd go out and talk to the schools about what they were doing. A lot of people don't understand the power of the local or state superintendent coming in and asking teachers about what they're doing. Once you show interest, they become encouraged to do that.
"That's how I operated as a local superintendent, and it will be how I operate as state superintendent," he said. "I show an interest. Put out challenges. Set expectations."
Nutrition: 'We're serious about it.'
Before Christmas, he was already going from office to office at the Department of Education, talking to people. "I'm doing my homework," he said. "I introduce myself and then I say, "OK, what do you do?"
When he talked with an employee who was throwing a holiday office party, Phares asked if the refreshments would pass Office of Child Nutrition guidelines.