Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Giving Birth and Recess

While I kinda hate this woman for seeing childbirth not as an excuse not to do any creative work, as I and all right-thinking women do, I also am going to look for her book.

And it turns out my tour guides were on the mark when they said offering recess was rare in Chicago. Fortunately, our neighborhood schools are part of a citywide trend to bring it back. Although it is ironic that as a parent, I'm willing to march in the streets to give my kid time on the blacktop, when as a kid I would have been thrilled to escape the daily eviction out into the cold, mean-girl-infested four square courts. Well, Nutmeg is so much like her daddy that with luck she'll get along with all the kids, and if not, at least these recesses are only 10 or 20 minutes, once a day. My tour guides were correct in blaming the teachers union in part for the loss of recess; what they didn't tell me was that it was also brought about by parents fearful that the neighborhoods around some schools were too dangerous. Nice, huh?

After years of cooping up kids, city schools flirt with recess

By Tracy Dell'Angela
Tribune staff reporter
Published October 23, 2006

Restoring recess was so important to Mitchell Elementary School parents and staff this year that they selected their new principal in part on his willingness to make time for playtime.

As reforms go, it's a small one--about 10 minutes of free play at the end of an already-squeezed 20-minute lunch break. But it's made a difference at the West Side school, officials say. The students are better behaved and more attentive in the afternoon. And the staff is talking about how to expand the lunch period to give the pupils more time to play outside.

Nearly three decades after the Chicago Public Schools all but eradicated recess at most elementary campuses, there's a movement to bring it back--an effort now championed by schools chief Arne Duncan. It's the first time since Mayor Richard Daley took over the school system in 1995 that a district leader publicly endorsed free play as a priority.

"My goal would be to have recess at every single school," said Duncan, who acknowledged that he never would have succeeded in school if he didn't get out to play between lessons.

"I think it's critically important for students to have that break," he said. "It helps them academically. It cuts down on discipline problems. But in a system of more than 500 elementary schools, there's no simple answer."

Duncan pointed to various hurdles that stand in the way of his goal, including the teachers contract, lack of space and supervision at schools, and safety concerns in high-crime neighborhoods.

Still, his endorsement boosts a grass-roots movement that is trying to change the recess policy one building at a time--and not just in the high-performing schools where parents would balk at the notion of their 1st graders spending all day in a classroom without a break. Parents are pushing for playtime in the same tough neighborhoods, from Englewood to Humboldt Park, that fought to end the midday break because of security concerns in the late 1970s.

Kids need a break

"Our children need this," said Louise Evans, a grandmother of 13 and longtime volunteer at Nicholson Elementary School in Englewood. "They don't get a break. They don't really get a chance to relax and be themselves."

There is little debate among experts that recess is important to a child's development and helps children stay focused on schoolwork. But in Chicago, a number of factors over the years conspired to kill playtime at schools.

City educators are under pressure to pack in as much academic time as they can into an already tight day. The district has the shortest school day in Illinois, at five hours and 45 minutes, and one of the shortest among urban districts nationwide. In New York, school is in session at least six hours and 20 minutes and almost seven hours in some low-performing schools.

Also, the midday break disappeared so long ago that there are few teachers left who remember what it was like when recess was part of their daily routine.

By 1980, nearly every Chicago elementary school became a "closed campus," which moved the lunch break to the end of the day and effectively shortened the school day by 45 minutes. This allows teachers and students to leave by 2:45 p.m., the standard dismissal time at most city schools, instead of 3:30 p.m.

The move to closed campuses started in the 1960s because of discipline and truancy problems in West Side schools. When campuses were open, students were free to go home for lunch or play unsupervised. Fights erupted. Some students never returned to afternoon classes.

A closed campus meant the children stayed inside and ate during a 20-minute break, which was created by combining two 10-minute teacher breaks. The change caught on at more schools and ultimately became a part of the Chicago Teachers Union contract.

Even now, every school has the option to change the school day and give teachers and pupils a 45-minute break midday, which would allow time for recess. According to the union contract, a committee of the principal, union delegate, three teachers and three parents can vote to change the lunch schedule.

Few provide recess

But only a handful of schools have done so. Estimates indicate that fewer than one in five schools in the district provide daily scheduled recess for all students. Fewer than 30 schools offer recess longer than 20 minutes, and many are charter schools not bound by the union contract.

The option isn't popular with teachers, and it creates some scheduling issues for principals, who must find support staff and parent volunteers willing to supervise recess while classroom teachers are on break. Some schools don't have enough contained space for play; others worry about contingencies for bad weather.

For the small percentage of Chicago schools that bucked the trend against playtime, officials say making recess a priority was well worth the extra time and effort.

"What we're doing here is a baby step in the right direction," said Luis Soria, the new Mitchell principal. "It took a little bit of creative scheduling. But since we've begun recess, we have not had one single incident during our lunch period."

Eighth grader Abraham Villareal was one of the Mitchell pupils who grilled principal candidates about their recess philosophy. He said he used to feel "stressed out and tired" after a day cooped up inside his school, but that's changed this year. He concedes that he usually rushes through his lunch to get outside, but even a few minutes kicking a soccer ball re-energizes him and makes the school day feel shorter.

Teachers union leaders say they support the concept of recess but acknowledge that a longer school day or a new lunch schedule is a tough sell in many schools. The issue also is expected to surface during teacher contract negotiations, as the district pushes for a longer school day that could allow for recess without taking away from time devoted to academics.

"The reason teachers like the closed campus is because they get to go home at 2:30 or 2:45," said Nick Cannella, union administrative coordinator. "Even new teachers like getting out early because they have classes they have to get to or a second job or kids they have to pick up."

Safety also is a concern in high-crime neighborhoods, although one elementary school in East Garfield Park implemented recess two years ago by extending the school day despite some parent concerns that their children were not safe outside. The principal at Bethune Elementary asked staff and parents to help supervise, and the playtime has proved popular with families and teachers.

Rodney Hull, principal at Nicholson, said he allows pupils out to play after lunch only in the spring--after they finish the state tests that determine the school's progress under No Child Left Behind. The day is too short and the pressure to complete the tested material too great to allow for recess before the mid-March testing, he said.

Extending the school day would help, but Hull isn't sure he would use the extra time for play. He's not convinced that recess helps students and has observed that his pupils are hard to settle down on the spring afternoons when they do get out to play.

So until Nicholson pupils finish testing, the two new play lots and more than an acre of fenced green space will remain quiet during the school day.

"The general consensus is we're safer if we keep them in the building," Hull said.




Anonymous said...

Is it wrong that I read the title as "Giving Birth and Reeces" (i.e. the peanut butter cups) and thought, wow, that's a good idea to pack some of those in my hospital bag!? :)

Carrie said...

Mmmm, Reeces. Nothing is better than chocolate when you're breastfeeding. I was actually tempted to call it Giving Birth AT Recess but decided that's a little too close to the truth for some girls these days.

Notta Wallflower said...

That's so sad - the recess debate. So, even though most people realize it's good for kids to have a break, teachers won't go for it because it lengthens their day. What is wrong with this picture. I can tell you that, from an educator's standpoint, I'd rather have a longer day and actually be able to have my students learn. My boys, in particular, would have a hard time with learning if they didn't get breaks.