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Some CPS parents worry longer day will hurt special college prep courses

Northside College Prep High School 5501 No. Kedzie. | Courtesy Northside Prep

Northside College Prep High School at 5501 No. Kedzie. | Courtesy, Northside Prep

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Updated: March 4, 2012 8:20AM

More than 2,000 parents and supporters of Northside College Prep have signed an online petition asking that the state’s highest-scoring public high school be exempted from a longer school day this fall.

They say the change would undermine the school’s trademark shortened “colloquium’’ day of boutique electives — in the past everything from Baseball Statistics to lifeguarding — for kids.

“We ask the Chicago Public School board not to dismantle Northside’s successful program in the name of uniformity but to preserve it for future generations of students based on its outstanding results,’’ the petition by the Northside College Prep Parent Network implores.

Selective-enrollment Northside opened in 1999 at Bryn Mawr and Kedzie with a shortened colloquium day for kids on most Wednesdays. On other days, it offers only honors or Advanced Placement courses in core subjects.

Colloquium courses have included A Literary Tour of England, All Things Hawaii, German Cinema and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Colloquium days — since copied in other forms by other college preps — provide “essential balance for our students’ intellectual and physical development,’’ the Northside petition insists.

Changing the current nearly 3 1/2-hour colloquium day to a 7 1/2 hour one ­— as required by new CPS guidelines — would cut into critical free time students now use for homework, extracurriculars and just plain decompressing, petition supporters say.

Northside students “get a lot of homework. That’s the day to catch up,’’ said Northside Parent Network member Raj Patel. “They [CPS officials] should look at the quality of the school day, not the quantity. ... If the system is working for Northside, why do they want to mess up what works?”

The petition website has allowed scores of current and former Northside parents and students to tout the benefits of Northside’s colloquium day. One signer described himself as “Current Harvard student, Northside grad who knows the irreplaceable value of colloquium.’’

“Top-down decisions from the CPS, like this one, do nothing to help the school, and in fact threaten the experimental features which have made Northside so successful,’’ wrote another signer.

Parents at Payton College Prep, the state’s No. 3 high school, at Oak and Wells, also have voiced concern about the future of Payton’s “seminar day’’ — Payton’s version of the Northside “colloquium.’’ Plans still being tweaked would add a minimum two hours to seminar days while allowing kids to get extra help or enjoy clubs during the new added time.

During a parent briefing Tuesday night, several Payton parents said the shortened school day is critical stress-reliever for kids under a lot of academic stress. One said all CPS high-scoring schools should be granted waivers if they meet a certain performance threshold.

“I don’t think we need a longer day and I don’t think many parents think so,’’ said another parent Katie Merrell, a member of Friends of Payton, which has not taken a formal stand on the issue.

Asked if CPS would be granting any waivers to high-scoring schools, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said Wednesday that “every school is going to have a 7 1/2 hour day next year.’’ Until principals turn in their proposals for structuring their school’s longer day, “we’re not going to be in a position to comment on any one school structure.’’

Although the National Center for Education Statistics lists the average U.S. school day at 6.6 hours, Carroll said the 7 1/2-hour day “gets us to the national average for elementary and high schools,” whether CPS keeps its current 170-day school year or expands it to 180 days, as proposed by Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard.

With state tests based on tougher “common core” standards due in 2014, Carroll said, “all students need instructional time in core subjects such as math, reading and science — regardless of their academic performance levels — to prepare them for when the common core becomes the norm in Illinois.”

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