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New effort to get recess back at Chicago public grammar schools

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



After a 38-year hiatus, recess advocates are hoping a perfect storm is finally brewing to bring recess back to most Chicago public grammar schools.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said Tuesday she favors having all elementary school teachers consider moving their lunch from the end of the day to the middle, when kids could then have recess — a switch that could extend the school day for kids by 45 minutes in those schools without lengthy recesses.

Recess “is good for kids and it’s good for teachers,” who lunch and confer together during it, Lewis told the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s a win-win.”

Chicago Public Schools officials say they support recess — although a task force they formed has mostly helped schools add just 10-minute recesses.

Meanwhile, parent, legislative and even White House support is growing for recess, which has seen cutbacks around the nation in schools under pressure to test well.

In Chicago, the Raise Your Hand parent coalition tonight kicks off a series of instructional seminars for parents on how to restore recess to the two-thirds of Chicago public elementary schools that, at last count, don’t have it regularly.

In Illinois, a legislative task force is due to start discussing how to implement recess statewide. And in Washington, D.C., Chicago-born first lady Michelle Obama has been pushing recess, saying it helps kids stay fit.

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel wants Chicago kids to have a longer school day and said Monday he’s ready to go to Springfield if necessary to get it.

But Raise Your Hand parents note that in most cases, Chicago schools without recess can add 45 minutes to the school day for kids — without costing a dime — merely by moving teachers’ lunch to the middle of the day. Under that model, the new, mid-day 45-minute block can be split between recess and lunch.

The switch would not add instructional minutes, Lewis noted, but research indicates it would help kids learn better during the class time they do have.

“You have to take into consideration whether there is a place to accommodate recess,” Lewis cautioned. “A lot of schools don’t even have outdoor places for kids to play. . . . I would encourage teachers to look at the options available to them and how it will work in their schools.”

At Hyde Park’s Ray School, which has offered recess for decades, the littlest kids haven’t read the research, but they can feel the effects of recess.

“It helps you get all your energy out,” said first-grader Sophia Macklin. “It’s easier to pay attention after recess.”

Recess provides time for “free play,” when kids get to make up their own rules, figure out what’s “fair,” and wean the kind of socialization and problem-solving skills that will help them for the rest of their life, experts say. Such play is especially critical for kids in high-crimes areas, where parents may keep kids inside for safety reasons, a 2008 Chicago Sun-Times series called “Schooled in Fear” found.

On Tuesday, Ray second-grader Anaiya Oden and her friend created new rules for their next game of tag as they walked off the playground at the end of recess. “We kinda have accidents when we play ‘it,’ ” Anaiya said. “We decided we have to try not to push so much.”

Unlike Ray, the “vast majority” of CPS schools moved to a “closed campus” model that eliminated a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and a lengthy student lunch after the CTU won that option in the 1973 contract, CPS officials say.

The changes followed concerns about kids who went home during the long lunch break and either never came back or encountered problems in the neighborhood.

The new model left kids with no recess and a 20-minute lunch. Lunch for teachers was pushed to the end of the day, allowing them to leave early if they wanted.

But Ray kept their “open campus” model and never looked back. The school’s two recesses a day for kindergarten through third-graders, and one 20-minute recess a day for fourth through sixth-graders, is a draw for many parents, said principal Bernadette Butler.

“We want our kids to go outside and play,” said Butler. Pointing to some boys playing catch with a wadded-up ball of paper, Butler said, “These guys here — how are they going to learn to set their own rules or boundaries unless they play? This is inventive play.”

Exactly who needs to approve a switch to a midday teacher lunch seems to be in dispute. CPS officials say one section of the CTU contract calls for a “review committee” composed of the principal, union delegate, three teachers and three parents from the local school council to approve such a move.

But the CTU’s Lewis points to another contract section that indicates teachers schoolwide must approve such a switch. That’s how Ray does it every year, principal Butler said.



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