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Longer school day, shorter tempers



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Updated: March 24, 2012 9:08AM

A new feature made its debut at Wednesday’s meeting of the Chicago Board of Education: a time clock.

The clock, displayed on video screens, counted down from two hours in an effort to limit the public participation period that starts every board meeting.

Eighty-three speakers were allowed to register for a turn at the microphone, many of whom had lined up before dawn to make their voices heard on the issue of the day —school closings — and the issue of tomorrow: a longer school day.

Three-and-a-half contentious hours later, the last of the speakers wrapped up and gave way to Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, who assured everyone their views had been heard — at this and prior public forums. Brizard then cast immediate doubt on that pronouncement by recommending the board move ahead with the exact same plan for 17 school closings and turnarounds that he had put in motion months ago, before the public was invited to have its say.

A few hours of secret discussions later, the board approved the plan — the first round of school closings and turnarounds undertaken by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education team.

I honestly can’t say whether those schools should be closed or “turned around.” A person shouldn’t just parachute into this complicated issue the way I did Wednesday and act like he has all the answers.

What I can tell you, though, is that it’s evident the mayor has stirred up a political hornet’s nest with the school closings that stretches well beyond his dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union, and he’s really going to get stung if he doesn’t improve his approach on the longer school day question.

Emanuel campaigned on a pledge to lengthen the school day, and I know the idea resonated with most Chicagoans. It certainly sounded good to me. More time spent in school never hurt anybody.

Now, however, opposition is forming in quite unexpected places — from parents at some of the district’s better schools. They’re not opposed to a longer school day. They just question why that school day should be 7½ hours as Brizard seems determine to impose.

Why not something more along the lines of 6½ hours, which would allow their children more time for after-school pursuits, these parents argue. (Currently, elementary school days are about 5˝ hours.) Moreover, where are the schools going to get the money that will allow this extra time to be used to provide a better education, they ask.

Each time the parents at another school speak up, I kick myself for having failed to see that we’ve gone and done it again: tried to impose a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to a very complicated problem.

While these are some of the same issues raised by the teachers union, it would be a huge mistake for anyone — the mayor included — to dismiss the opposition as pawns of the union. This is the type of grass-roots unrest you don’t buy with $25 stipends.

Jonathan Goldman, a parent from Drummond Montessori, a magnet elementary in Bucktown, was among those questioning the insistence on the 7½-hour school day.

If Drummond uses the longer school day to expand lunch hour and add recess, that requires someone to supervise the kids — staffing that doesn’t exist at this point, Goldman said. Likewise, the school would like to use the extra time to add a music program but wonders how it will pay a music teacher.

“Where’s the money coming from to do this right?” Goldman asked.

Concerns were similar for a contingent from Mount Greenwood Elementary, where parent Denise Murphy complained about “autocratic power-hungry politicians” who were “infringing on our parental rights.” She didn’t mention anybody by name, but afterwards told me folks in her neighborhood think this is “mandated from the mayor, dictated to CPS.” Sounds about right.

Perhaps these concerns ring hollow in neighborhoods with little parental involvement and few after-school options.

But the mayor better slow it down long enough to realize he’s sowing discontent beyond the folks so easily trampled on the school closings.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson showed up at the board meeting, talking “apartheid” and sensing political opportunity in the groundswell of community anger over the closings.

Somebody might want to reset that time clock.

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