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Activists 'thrilled' with mandatory recess

Activists who’ve been fighting for years to restore recess to city elementary schools are rallying around a comment made by the new head of Chicago Public Schools.

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said every elementary school in the city will offer recess beginning in fall 2012.

"We came in too late to actually push for a citywide mandate for this fall…but by next fall, all schools—all elementary schools in the city—will have recess," Brizard said Monday evening on WBEZ’s new call-in program, Schools on the Line, where the public can speak directly with the head of CPS.

Here’s the question (asked by Raise Your Hand Coalition member and mother Patricia O’Keefe) and Brizard’s answer:

Previously, the district had said all schools must consider adding recess, but schools had not been told they were required to institute it.

The group Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), which has been pushing to restore recess since 2006, posted a gleeful message to its supporters online: “FINALLY, CPS ANNOUCES PUBLICLY:  RECESS TO RETURN TO ALL CHICAGO ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS! Let's Hold Them To It!”

The Raise Your Hand Coalition sent an “action alert” to its members asking them to call or email Brizard to thank him.  O’Keefe says she's thrilled, but there’s still a fight ahead:

Brizard's commitment comes just weeks after dozens of schools said no to recess in school-by-school votes.

A 2011 survey of CPS principals showed more than half of city schools have no daily recess—and that’s for the youngest students. Two-thirds of those surveyed said seventh and eighth graders “never” have recess.

In May, those fighting for recess got a boost from CPS; just days before Brizard took over as CEO the district released a guide encouraging schools to add 45 minutes to the school day by voting to move teachers’ lunches back to the middle of the day.

Currently, elementary school teachers’ lunches at most schools have been pushed to the end of the day, and students and teachers are dismissed 45 minutes earlier because of it. Some schools have been living with that schedule for 30 years.

At the time it issued the guide, CPS said it would require that all schools vote on whether to push teacher lunches back to the middle of the school day. In a letter to principals, former CEO Terry Mazany said schools could switch immediately, or they could begin planning  “so that they are ready to return recess to the school day in 2012-2013 school year."

But neither the guide nor Mazany’s letter ever indicated that schools would be forced to restore recess.

CPS says around 100 schools held hearings and voted on whether to restore recess this fall, but the vast majority rejected the schedule change.  Many cited an extremely short timeline; they had just three weeks to debate how bus schedules and after-school programs would be affected, what kids would do in bad weather, and—in some Chicago neighborhoods---whether it was even safe for children to play outside.

CPS says 13 schools are putting teacher lunches back in the middle of the day and restoring recess this fall.

“Most everyone says recess is great for children,” says O’Keefe, “but if that means moving lunch and staying later—that’s where principals and teachers backed off and said no.” O’Keefe’s own school, Alcott, voted not to add the extra 45 minutes to the day.

Teachers have four of the eight votes on the school-based committees that determine whether to institute the new schedule. The principal also has a vote.

Alcott offers recess for kindergarten through fourth graders, but it does so the way many schools do— by cutting into students’ instructional time.

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