CPS backs recess

District releases guide for schools to bring back play time, extend school by 45 minutes.

May 24, 2011

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The school district has released a guide for elementary schools wanting to restore recess. (Irina Hynes/flickr)

Chicago is taking a step toward bringing recess back to its elementary schools. After years of work by parent and community groups to convince school officials that children need a break in the middle of the day, Chicago Public Schools on Monday released a guide for schools called “Developing a School Recess Plan. ”

The decision of whether to add 45 minutes to the school day and restore recess will be made at each individual elementary school by a committee of the principal, parents and teachers.

School officials began briefing principals on the process Monday. And while schools have the right to continue under the current school day—where students have 20 minutes to eat lunch and most do not have recess—the guide makes clear that recess is now a priority. “The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) encourages all elementary schools to incorporate recess into their school day,” it begins.

In one of his final acts before turning the district over to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's chosen schools chief, interim CEO Terry Mazany said in a statement that recess is “vital" and that he hopes the published guide will be “the blueprint needed to return recess to our elementary schools. ”

Schools that vote before June 18 to restore recess would see a new school day by fall.

Guillermo Gomez is with the Healthy Schools Campaign. That group has been pushing since 2006 to get recess back, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

“We’ll be talking with principals and we’ll be working with parents out in the community get them on board to do this,” said Gomez. “I think the majority of the parents want to see recess. ”

The extra time for recess would be gained by moving teachers’ lunch breaks back to the middle of the school day; in most elementary schools teachers' lunch breaks are officially at the end of the day, after students are dismissed.

Schools began moving to the current school day decades ago, but it took a savvy parent group, Raise Your Hand, to discover the clause in the teachers contract that would allow schools to put lunch back in the middle of the day and restore recess for their children. The group calculates that just 37 percent of schools have any form of recess.  That figure includes schools that only allow certain grades to go outside to play.

Schools may still vote to continue under the current day. The guide, which was written by a task force that included parent and community groups, acknowledges obstacles to recess, including concerns over whether it is safe for children to play outside in many Chicago neighborhoods.  CPS has said schools can use the 2011-12 school year as a “transitional period” to work out logistical questions, including student transportation, after school programing, space and safety issues, and plans for inclement weather.

The Chicago Teachers Union has said it supports recess in principle. CPS's guide includes a waiver for teachers to give up part of their duty-free, 45-minute lunch period so they can supervise kids on the playground, should that be necessary. It also recommends using parent volunteers to staff recess, since the new priority does not come with any additional funding.