At Kingsway Regional Middle School, students can skateboard their way toward an "A" in gym class.

"Our main goal," physical education teacher Bill Ewe says, "is to get kids excited about physical fitness. Not to just throw a basketball at them."

The optional, two-week skateboarding unit - described as the first such curriculum in New Jersey - got rolling before the state's education budget cuts hit, and so far "the kids love it," principal Troy A. Walton adds.

I'm standing in the gleaming gymnasium of the middle school, a handsome edifice on Kings Highway in Woolwich Township. About 30 seventh-grade boys and girls in red T-shirts sit on the floor and get into their gear.

"I skateboard a lot at my house, so I know the basics," says Matthew Reed, 13, of Swedesboro. "At first, I thought they would have really bad boards, but it turns out these are really nice."

A Colorado-based vendor called Skate Pass provided 35 "kits" - boards; helmets; and wrist, elbow, and knee protectors - at $100 each. Classes are held on the gym floor; we're talking basic, earthbound skateboarding, no ramps, rails, or aerial maneuvers such as the Frontside Indy 360.

"The first lesson is how to fall," Ewe says. "We're teaching them safety and the equipment they should be using."

It's been quite a while since my last gym class, but the squeaks of the sneaks and rubbery communal reek in the room bring it all back. The only thing missing is being picked last for, say, some dumb shirts vs. skins scrimmage.

Choosing sides and similar Darwinian rituals, I'm happy to report, are no longer the rule in gym class. These days it's about cooperation and creativity - with an eye toward motivating all kids, not just naturally athletic youngsters, to get active and live healthy.

"A lot of kids already participate in football, baseball, basketball, and soccer outside of school," says Walton, himself a former P.E. teacher. "We're looking to gain the interest of kids who may not be so interested in traditional sports."

Ewe, now in his 13th year teaching P.E. (the last five at Kingsway), says this day's lesson will include an advanced lane where the kids can start doing some moves. "We're advancing from just getting comfortable to be able to turn, do some carves, some front-side grabs, and backside grabs."

A father of two skateboard enthusiasts, he looks utterly at home on his board. He's got a coach's commanding voice, too.

"We're going to give you guys a little bit more responsibility today," Ewe tells his students, groups of whom begin to roll across the gym.

The scene is orderly - the kids make it look easy, if not effortless - and then, inevitably, a skateboard goes flying. Then another.

"If you put too much weight on it," Ewe advises a young lady with braces on her teeth, "that board is going to kick and go."

Some students carve among the cones, while others seem cool with the back-and-forth.

"I am not good at sports, and I thought it was going to be really hard," says Ally Link, 12, of South Harrison. "But it's fun."

Jennifer Denight, a 13-year-old from Woolwich, says she is "keeping my balance a little bit better" since the unit began. And Diana Maybrook, 12, of East Greenwich, calls the class "something different that you wouldn't expect."

Via e-mail, Eva Mullen, cofounder of Skate Pass, says Kingsway "is our first and only school district" in New Jersey. "Usually, once we get our first-in-state, other districts eventually follow."

Given the reality of public-education funding in New Jersey, Kingsway could be the first and last.

Superintendent Ave Altersitz says reaction from parents and the community has been "very positive" but notes that voters defeated the district's proposed budget and forced $1.2 million in cuts.

The Skate Pass kits were paid for in the current budget; otherwise skateboarding "would have been gone," Altersitz says. "There's no doubt."

Walton acknowledges that keeping up with equipment maintenance will be difficult. "We have innovative teachers with innovative ideas we may not be able to fund in the future," he says.

Dodgeball, anyone?