Have you taken notice recently of your local Chicago public school? As an institution of great importance in the community, it has never looked better. Thanks to the demanding and appropriate expectations of Mayor Richard M. Daley and the genius and enterprise of Gery Chico, president of the Chicago Board of Education, and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, Chicago’s neglected public school buildings and their grounds have been transformed from dingy structures to rehabilitated, prideful institutions.

The rubble-strewn, broken-asphalt lots on which schools were situated have become functional and aesthetically pleasing campuses. These campuses have colorful play equipment whose use is protected by safety surfaces underneath, new asphalt surfaces upon which designs for games have been imprinted and landscaping that includes grass, flowers and shrubs—-all tastefully enclosed by decorative fencing. The upgrading of the physical facilities makes the statement that these institutions are very important places.

An examination of student achievement data and other performance measures reveals that over the past few years something very significant has been happening inside Chicago’s public schools. But is something significant happening outside of the buildings, too? Are students given the opportunity to enjoy the experiences that the equipment and game areas would allow? Do they have the time to absorb the cheeriness of the plantings? At most Chicago public schools, probably in excess of 95 percent, the answer is NO!

The students are confined inside the school building for the entire school day, the result of an organizational pattern called “closed campus.” In reality, closed campus means closed building. The students enter the building in the morning and stay there for 5½ hours. A truly closed campus —that is, restricting students to the building and grounds— could be good. But in most Chicago public schools, students are restricted to the school building. The newly enhanced campuses are like Victorian parlors, off limits to children. At a typical CPS elementary school, the student day includes a 20-minute lunch period, which allows 10 to 15 minutes for eating and no opportunity for recreation. In some schools, the 20-minute lunch period must be spent in silence. How unnatural!

For years, too many of Chicago’s public schools have not adequately faced up to the responsibility to provide vital academic and social experiences for students. In the past few years, there has been a dramatic and effective turn-around in the area of academic instruction. But what about the important arena of socialization? Has sufficient importance and attention been given to teaching and practicing civility and getting along with others? The socialization needs of students should not be overlooked. The U.S. Department of Education, recognizing the need to teach standards of positive behavior, has made grants for character education available to school districts in nine states, including Chicago’s. Programs in character education have been instituted, but they are primarily an intellectual exercise without the concomitant opportunity to practice social skills at play. What better place than these reconstructed, upgraded campuses to satisfy the need for students to learn how to get along with each other?

A 330-minute school day with only a 20-minute lunch break and a 10-minute recess does not recognize the physical or social needs of students to have a slice in the middle of the day to exercise and recreate. It does not provide a configuration within which to practice caring, courtesy, honesty, kindness, respect, personal responsibility, honor and consideration of others as alternatives to violence and other anti-social behavior. Squeezing recreational time out of the day ignores important needs in social and physical development.

The playground is a place to practice fair and respectful methods of conflict resolution, to develop problem-solving skills and to engage in the art of decision making. Responsible conduct is most successful when students are involved in activities. Students can discover positive ways to succeed in the world around them. These are life-long skills. Containment serves to suppress and to sublimate. Access to the campus and playground would enable students to develop socially and physically through the use of that bright new equipment and those newly painted areas for hop- scotch, jump rope and other games. School grounds are places for learning.

The teacher’s day in these closed building schools is disregardful of their well-being, too. In Article 4-14 of the Agreement between the Board of Education of the City of Chicago and the Chicago Teachers Union, elementary school teachers are guaranteed only a 10-minute morning break and a 10-minute afternoon break. There is no requirement for a lunch period during the teaching day, which is certainly an intense one, to say the least. Can teachers be at their peak of productivity under such a schedule? In addition, they must deal with the pent-up energy of students whose developmental needs for physical activity and socialization have not been met–an energy that sometimes turns into aggression when students are confined to their desks all day. Giving students wholesome outlets for pent-up energies and emotions reduces unacceptable classroom behavior, thus benefiting teachers. As with students, teachers would benefit from having time to socialize during the day. Collegiality and informal professional interaction are important. Teachers and students need a break from each other during the day—not a 10-minute relief period.

How much more productive afternoon sessions could be if a 40- to 45-minute lunch period were part of the schedule. That would extend either the entry or the dismissal time by 40 to 45 minutes; there would still be 300 minutes of instructional time.

Closed buildings are not just a poverty-area phenomenon; they can be found in some of the most affluent areas of the city, including Beverly Hills and Lincoln Park. Likewise, instances of closed campuses (not closed buildings), where the students get to use the campus during a 40- to 45-minute lunch period, can be found in various locations in the city, and these schools are some of the most successful in terms of student achievement.

The closed-building organization is based upon the fallacious assumption that students cannot be taught to socialize with each other and to observe rules of safety. Of course, it is easier to administer such a schedule, but the schools exist for the students, and this schedule stunts their growth.

Can Daley, Chico and Vallas release students from their confinement to enjoy the amenities they have so grandly provided for them? No. They don’t have that authority. The decision to be on a closed-building day is a local school decision. To adopt this organizational pattern requires approval of 67 percent of the teachers. Then, a review committee meets annually to decide whether to maintain it. The committee includes the principal, the Chicago Teachers Union delegate, three teachers and three parents from the local school council. Daley, Vallas and Chico cannot mandate a school day more respectful of the physical and social needs of students and teachers, but they have certainly made it more tempting for schools to consider a return to an opportunity for the practice of civility while having fun and getting physical exercise.

If a school were to decide to adopt a developmentally appropriate school day, could it be implemented overnight? No. Students in closed-building schools probably are unprepared to enter into such social situations. First there would need to be extensive instruction in appropriate playground activities, establishing areas on the playgrounds for specific ages and activities, instruction in conflict resolution and practice in problem solving in social situations. But wouldn’t the results, more socially adaptable children and youth, be worth it?

More on the web:

“All work, less play” looks at fitness and nutrition trends in the Chicago Public Schools. The Chicago Reporter, June 1999

“Getting a jump on good health,” looks at how schools are trying to modify physical education curricula to more effectively help kids establish regular exercise habits. Harvard Education Letter, November/December 2000.


Objections, rebuttals to outdoor play time

Students will have accidents; they will get hurt.
Teaching safety is a curricular requirement. The physical education teacher should assume the primary responsibility for thorough instruction in safety and should teach appropriate games to be played on school grounds. The student government can assist in forming practices that are civil and safe. Playgrounds should be divided into areas for students of different ages—6-year- olds and 12-year-olds should not be sharing the same space.

Students will fight.
All the more reason to teach appropriate social behavior, with daily opportunity for practice. Locking students inside a building all day doesn’t teach them not to fight. It represses anger and frustration.

The school grounds are unsafe.
If the school grounds are unsafe between the hours of noon and 1:00 p.m., then perhaps no one in the areas where schools are located should be out on the streets during those hours.

No supervision is available.
Teacher supervision is necessary, but in an organized setting where the students have been properly taught socialization skills, including conflict resolution, and appropriate games, only a few teachers are needed. Schools with 40- to 45-minute lunch periods have worked this out successfully.

Individual teachers can take their students out during the day if they wish
This is a teacher-directed activity rather than a true opportunity for self-disciplined student interaction.

Schools can have after-school Social Center programs which can include recreational opportunities.
These are good, but they occur after 5½ hours of confinement and tend to be exclusively indoor programs.

–Margaret Harrigan

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