How One Chicago School Survived The Long Winter | WBEZ
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Rethinking Recess: How One Chicago School Survived The Long Winter

When Chicago Public Schools reinstated recess in 2012 after nearly 30 years, many principals realized they had a problem, especially during the long winter months: They didn’t have the space or the expertise to make recess fun and safe.

"We were having a lot of student injuries and issues,” said Shields Elementary Principal Michael Pacourek, ticking off examples of kids falling and tripping over things.

At his Southwest Side school, indoor recess — which is finally coming to an end after an endless winter — nearly 700 hundreds students take turns for 20 minutes of recess in a classroom or the auditorium. The seats regularly get in the way of games like dodgeball or soccer.

For the last seven years school officials figured out ways to best manage recess at their schools, even if it comes at an additional cost. Some schools clear their classrooms, others use the gym if it’s available, have security guards watching over kids or ask teachers to volunteer to supervise.

At Shields, Pacourek decided to bring in a trained coach full time. Coach Carly Siess organizes safe games for kids to play and trains older students to become “junior” coaches. She also spends time in each class teaching kids social and emotional skills using games.  

“They are learning how to take turns, they are learning how to be respectful with each other, how to have conflict resolution with each other,” Pacourek said. He also noted that injuries have declined since he added the program six years ago.

The full-time coach gives Pacourek peace of mind — he knows the students are safe and having fun. But it’s not free.

“There is a cost,” said Colleen Harvey,the executive director of Playworks Illinois, which is part of  a national nonprofit that charges educators to help structure recess.

“When schools partner with Playworks … we talk to them about what are your goals, what are the things you want to work on, and based on that we recommend a service.”

The cost is $60,000 for this recess model, which trains volunteers from Americorp, a public service national organization, to become coaches, Playworks officials said. That's the cost of training, supervising and paying the volunteers a stipend.

Schools need to pay Playworks $32,400 and the rest is made up from Americorps and fundraising. The program is offered to schools where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Six other Chicago Public Schools pay for the same full-time program. A total of 14 schools have some kind of Playworks program.

Coming up with the money can be a hardship for cash-strapped public schools like Shields.

“When you are given a budget, there are going to be things that you are going to sacrifice,” Pacourek said. He says he weighs what to cut and chooses “things [that] don’t have such a direct impact on what our students receive.”  

To his school community, supervised recess is a priority.

Shields sits in the Brighton Park neighborhood — a mostly low-income immigrant community that struggles with street violence. There is a lot of gang activity in the area and that’s stressful for children.

Patrick Brosnan, who leads the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, thinks programs like this are important, but he wants the school district to give money to schools to pay for it and to hire more support staff.

“So that there is enough qualified and trained staff … to make sure that recess is safe and recess is rewarding for the kids,” Brosnan said.

The school district said it allows schools to determine whether to assign a school staff member to supervise recess or choose a program that involves volunteers or vendors. It also said it provides training for recess coordinators.

But some principals say the training and support is not particularly effective.

After nearly 30 years without recess and limits on how schools can spend their budgets, outside groups like Playwork are finding new opportunities. Ultimately, though, it’s up to each school principal to evaluate often tight budgets and decide how much recess is worth.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.

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