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Rahm gets his way, parents want a say on longer day

Updated: May 12, 2012 8:12AM

Having previously decreed that all Chicago Public Schools students should spend 7œ hours a day in school, Mayor Rahm Emanuel compromised with himself on Tuesday, decreeing that elementary school students could get by with 7 hours instead.

This was characterized by some as the mayor backing down or compromising with parents who believed Emanuel’s plan for a longer school day went too far.

I suppose you could look at it that way, although just as likely is that the mayor had planned to settle on 7 hours all along.

Emanuel campaigned on a longer school day. Emanuel will get a longer school day. The exact length of time was never as important as making good on his pledge to keep Chicago students in the classroom as much as students in the rest of the country.

He does that, you may have noticed, pushing for more than he expects to receive in the end. That way he doesn’t have to play the bully who always gets his way like the last mayor. He’s the mayor who is equally in a hurry to get things done but still capable of listening, or so we are to conclude.

Many of the parents who had been pressing Emanuel to opt for a 6œ-hour day for elementary schools remained unconvinced Tuesday that the mayor had listened to them — even if his decision appears to have met them halfway.

This was particularly true of the ones who were blocked from attending the mayor’s news conference at Disney II Magnet Elementary School in the Old Irving Park neighborhood, where he announced his longer school day decision.

They said they only came to listen, and having met a few of them previously, they hardly struck me as the types who would have been disruptive, but they were kept at bay from the Disney auditorium so as not to detract from the happy-faced choreography.

Their stated concerns remain what they’ve saying been all along — that there still is insufficient information about how CPS will fund the longer school day or how it will better use the time to deliver a better educational experience.

With schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard vowing to find the money from within CPS, they question how it’s possible to judge whether the longer school day will be an improvement until you know what you’re giving up. It’s a valid point.

Bogdana Chkoumbova, Disney II’s principal, explained Tuesday how her school funded a longer school day in the years before it was picked last fall as one of 13 pioneer schools to receive $150,000 from CPS to showcase the program — through grant-writing, fund-raising and “endless volunteer work.”

That’s not feasible for many schools — and there’s a lot of doubt about every school getting that extra $150,000, too.

Look, I don’t want to sound too snarky. This could be a great step in the right direction if the resources are there to make it work. The real travesty is that we allowed the school day to shrink to 5 hours 45 minutes without anybody forcefully complaining.

But until school officials have filled in the rest of the picture, you can’t say whether this will be a real improvement.

Emanuel and Brizard say those details will be available in the coming weeks as individual schools receive their locally based budgets and CPS finalizes its overall spending plan.

Brizard put a positive spin on the complaints from parent groups, saying involved parents are crucial to the system’s future. I’m told he truly believed 7œ hours would have been the ideal length for the school day, but wanted to show flexibility.

Among those standing with Emanuel at Tuesday’s news conference was Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), whose constituents have been among the most committed opponents of the mayor’s plans.

“The fact of the matter is the mayor listened,” said O’Shea, who called Emanuel’s plan a “good compromise” and a “good first step,” but added: “There’s a lot more work that needs to be done here.”

The mayor, pointedly noting that high school students will indeed have a 7œ-hour school day starting next year, said he hoped now we could stop debating the length of the school day and have a real discussion about how to use it.

There are some parents who would like to be heard on that as well.

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