Chicago schools should be given a on length of school day
MARK BROWN firstname.lastname@example.org March 10, 2012 12:22AM
Updated: April 12, 2012 10:06AM
A growing group of parents around the city are speaking out against the mayor’s plans to lengthen the public school day to 7.5 hours.
Chicago Public School officials would dismiss them as a small but vocal minority, and maybe they are. That’s tough to judge.
Given the high stakes — the future of this city’s children — I don’t want to do anything to exaggerate their influence. But I don’t like to see them ignored, either.
Since the latter seems the stronger likelihood in the current climate, I took a drive down to Morgan Park High School auditorium, just off 111th and Vincennes, on Thursday night where 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea had invited CPS officials to answer the concerns of his constituents.
The 19th Ward Parents, whom I mentioned after they spoke at a recent Board of Education meeting, are clearly the best organized of the longer school day opponents.
They’ve got a website, www.nolongerday.com, and on Thursday were handing out professionally printed yard signs to anyone willing to pay $5. O’Shea made it clear they’ve been giving him an earful for four months now.
Led by a bunch of outspoken moms, the 19th Ward Parents came to the meeting loaded for bear, and the CPS contingent never had a chance. Most of the crowd of 250 to 300 was hostile from the start.
But the CPS folks didn’t do themselves any favors either with a presentation that never directly answered many of the parents’ questions. And it was curtains after CPS Chief Instruction Officer Jennifer Cheatham instructed the working class audience to address her as “Dr. Cheatham.”
Parents raised a variety of complaints, everything from simply wanting to spend more time with their kids to what the group cites as its chief concern: that a lack of funding will require their neighborhood schools to make other cuts to allow for the longer day.
Even the 19th Ward Parents, however, agree the issue at this point isn’t so much whether to have a longer school day, but how long that day should be.
The current 5 hour, 45 minute day for elementary school students (high schools are already at 7 hours) puts Chicago at the bottom among the nation’s major urban school districts in terms of instructional minutes, and there seems to be widespread support around the city to keep kids in school longer.
Parent surveys gathered by the 19th Ward group suggest that support drops off drastically when that longer day moves beyond 6.5 hours — the length of day they would prefer.
CPS, though, insists 7.5 hours is needed — in conjunction with a longer school year — to bring total instructional minutes (rough translation: a student’s yearly time in class) “on par” with the national average.
This confuses the 19th Ward Parents — and me — because the national average school day is 6.6 hours, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Nobody can seem to explain why it would take a 7.5 hour day — far beyond the nation’s average — to deliver only an average amount of instructional time.
It’s possible there’s a silent majority out there that strongly supports the 7.5 hour day and is just waiting to be asked.
That’s why I thought the 19th Ward Parents’ suggestion to conduct an unbiased survey of all parents during report card pickup makes a lot of sense.
That’s not to say this is an issue you necessarily leave up to parents.
As Cheatham noted, the city’s school children are in crisis. The statistics paint a bleak picture: Only 57 percent of high school students graduate; less than 8 percent of high school juniors test college ready; and most alarming is the 83 percent of third-graders not reading at grade level.
Still, it’s more than possible some schools — and areas of the city — need this longer day much more than others.
Notably, most of the opposition has been coming from white parents in a district predominately composed of minority students.
Children from poorer communities who could benefit from a “full day” — as CPS has branded its 7.5 hour plan — shouldn’t be denied the chance because families with more resources don’t like it. But that’s no reason to make everybody do it.
That raises the question of whether individual schools should be given a choice.
“We are not suggesting what is good for us is good for all,” said Becky Malone, a leader of the 19th Ward Parents.
CPS already follows a principle of giving better performing schools more autonomy in some matters. I’m starting to think this should be one of those matters.