Under pressure from parents who oppose a 7.5 hour school day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel today announced that 7 hours would be enough for elementary school students. “No longer will we have to make false choices,” he said. “Teachers will not have to pick between science and social studies, math versus music, reading versus recess.”

High school students will have the 7.5 hour day four days a week, but will be released 75 minutes early once a week.

Emanuel said he never contended that 7.5 hours was a magical number, but that CPS’ current 5 hours and 45 minutes was short-changing children. He refused to acknowledge that he gave in a little to pressure, but insisted that with a 7-hour day he will reach still reach his goal of more classroom time.

Emanuel also pointed out that the new school calendar, passed at March’s Board of Education meeting, adds 10 more days to the year by eliminating some holidays and days when students are not in school because of professional development and report card pickup.

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the decision was made after meeting with more than 60 groups of parents.

“We want them to know that we didn’t just listen, we took action,” he said.

The decision comes amid mounting opposition to extending the school day to 7.5 hours. Different groups had slightly different reasons for their opposition, but had a unifying concern that the district doesn’t have enough money to fill the day with high-quality, engaging activities.

CPS officials announced in March that the district is facing a budget deficit in the range of $700 million this year. Soon, principals will receive their school-level budgets.

Given the projected deficit, it is difficult to see how the school budgets could include much extra money for activities in a longer day. Officials have alluded to the fact that they plan to give principals more discretion.

Emanuel said that the emphasis has been getting money out of central office and into schools. “It is about prioritizing,” he said.

Costs still in question

Jonathan Goldman, a member of Raise Your Hand, said that he thinks that Emanuel’s announcement is “a step in the right direction.” “At least CPS is recognizing that parents want to be at the table,” he said.

But he and his fellow group members still have reservations about how the district plans to pay for the longer day. In meetings, CPS officials have acknowledged that extra time will not automatically result in better learning, but that the additional time must be coupled with quality classes.

Maureen Cullnan, who is part of a group of parents from the 19th Ward on the far South Side, said that when Emanuel talks about having time for every subject, including science, it is disingenuous if no money is attached.

“Do you know how expensive science labs are?” she said.

Steven Guy, a member of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization whose grandson attends Fuller Elementary, questioned whether even the 7-hour day would be an improvement.

“How is it going to make a difference if you add an hour to something when you’re not financing what the kids need [now]?” he said. “How are they going to pay for it?”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis reiterated the union’s call for more money in its report “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.”

“Today, the mayor moved his toe half an inch from the starting line,” she said. “The mayor still needs to tell us how he intends to pay for this.”

Parents on both sides

At the press conference announcing the change, Emanuel and Brizard were flanked by politicians and principals and parents from schools that had pioneered a 7.5-hour day. Thirteen schools were given grants of between $75,000 and $150,000 to go to the extended schedule this year, before the pilot program screeched to a halt when a judge ruled that the district’s program violated fair labor practices.

Disney II Magnet Elementary teacher Adrienne Garrison said the extra time gives her space to differentiate instruction. She uses some of the time to allow her 3rd-graders to do independent research. They ask question and find the answer and put the results on the “wonder wall.”

Schools that adopted the extra time, like Disney II, must alter the schedule so it fits within the 7- hour time frame. Principal Bogdana Chkoumbova said she isn’t sure what the school will cut back on next year, though she suspects it will be “specials,” and not core subject instruction.

“It is to be determined,” she said.

Skinner North parent Chris Gladfelter, whose school also was part of the pilot program, said that many parents at his school will be relieved by the decision. A survey of parents at the school found that less than half liked the 7.5-hour day.  Those who didn’t like it were divided among wanting to move to a 6.5-hour day and a 7-hour day.

Gladfelter said he took his 2nd-grader out of some afterschool activities so that she would have time to come home, do homework and play. “We get to 7:30 at night and we have done nothing all day but school,” she said.

Gladfelter, however, admits Skinner North may not be a great barometer for whether the longer day is needed or successful. The students arrive at the school already achieving at high levels.(Skinner North is a classical school.)

Mary Anderson, executive director of the Chicago chapter of Stand for Children, said she thinks the vocal opposition is not representative of most parents. Anderson said her group still wants to see a 7.5-hour day implemented.  

“We are going to hold them accountable to their original proposal, she said.

Anderson said her group represents the silent majority. This weekend, the Chicago chapter will have a kick-off event and Anderson said 200 parents from all over the city will attend.

“We are concerned about the 120,000 students in failing schools that need the extra time,” she said.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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