After years of organizing by parent groups and others, CPS instituted a 20-minute recess as a mandatory part of its longer school day. The district even issued a recess guide for schools, training sessions about how to make the best use of recess time and hired a staff person to help schools with issues that arose.

Parents and activists were pleased with the new policy. Rochelle Davis, president and CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign, which supported the push for recess, says that having it institutionalized as district policy was “a very great step in the right direction.”

But lack of money to hire staff to supervise children was a problem, one that is likely to worsen given the budget cuts already reported by some schools. 

And a survey of parents from 20 schools by the group POWER-PAC found that schools didn’t always view recess as a requirement. POWER-PAC, which stands for Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew – Policy Action Council, is an arm of the grassroots group Community Organizing for Family Issues, known as COFI.

The survey found that one-third of the schools took recess away from students for disciplinary reasons, including failing to finish their work.

“A lot of the parents were complaining that [recess supervisors] were saying students couldn’t play, they had to walk up and down the playground” as a disciplinary measure, says Lisa Russell of Dvorak Elementary, a member of POWER-PAC. “The whole point of recess is that children be allowed to run and play.”

“You can’t have quiet recess,” Russell adds. “You can’t make them do exercises like push-ups. It should be about them being free and playing, socializing.”

The results were reported to CPS, and POWER-PAC reports positive changes. One school, where parents reported that students were asked to bring their own toys from home to use during recess, got hooked up with resources to get more equipment. Schools also got training to handle discipline without revoking recess.

Safety concerns, inadequate playgrounds

Revere Elementary is a case study that shows how schools in high-poverty neighborhoods struggled to implement the new policy.

Principal Veronica Thompson says she believes in holding recess outside when at all possible, barring bad weather. Even so, safety threats in the surrounding Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood forced her to cancel recess about four times during the recent school year. And though Thompson was able to use discretionary money to hire a part-time parent worker to supervise children, she says budget cuts might make it impossible to hire someone again this coming year.

A parent council at Revere recruited volunteers to help with supervision, but had difficulty getting them to show up consistently.

Ideally, Thompson says, volunteers could oversee small, manageable groups of eight to 10 students and get them engaged in activities. But problems crop up, Thompson says, “when you don’t have the personnel, and you are trying to give recess to 125 students with sometimes as few as two to three people.”

Revere also has inadequate space that limits children’s activities. The school has a small playground, but it is designed for younger children—up to 2nd grade—and can only accommodate 50 children at a time. Older students end up having recess elsewhere on school grounds, which are largely concrete, including part of the school’s parking lot.

“They want to play football, but all they can really do is throw the ball,” Thompson says.

Creating solutions

Davis of the Healthy Schools Campaign also notes that lack of outdoor space is a barrier to recess. Some schools have been able to work around the problem, she adds.

In one case, a hallway was used for children to play four-square, and a stairwell for Chinese jump rope.

Other schools turn to indoor recess that includes structured activities incorporating exercise and social -emotional learning. One example:  A school that used recess time for a dance party for some children and an anti-bullying program for other students.

“We have to work with schools to reach the goal [of giving students a classroom break], even if it doesn’t look like the recess from when we were kids,” Davis says.

But creative solutions can sometimes cross a fine line—and end up depriving children of recess and a break altogether.

Rosa Ramirez Richter, Chicago’s project manager for the Healthy Schools Campaign, notes that some schools view recess as a time for art class or for students to catch up on homework—and neither option is what CPS or advocates want to see in schools.

Healthy Schools Campaign plans to launch an initiative later this month called Change for Good that will combine its existing efforts to improve recess, student fitness and school food with a new emphasis on redeveloping schoolyards and playgrounds.

CPS has had its own plans to renovate playgrounds, and its 5-year capital plan includes $3.6 million a year for playground improvements.

Turning to outside vendors

CPS has turned to outside vendors to handle recess at some schools. In summer 2012, CPS approved a $36 million contract for out-of-school activities and “recess facilitation services.” Much of the money is going to after-school programs, but as of a June 2013 update to the contract, 11 organizations are listed as providing recess services to schools.

One of the programs, Play With Potential, plans to expand into 14 schools next year.

Another group, PlayWorks, was in about a half-dozen schools, at a cost of about $72,000 per school to pay for personnel who also manage after-school activities and provide classroom lessons on social-emotional skills. Schools paid one-third of the cost, about $24,000, out of their own discretionary money. (A study found that the program decreased bullying, improved students’ feelings of safety, increased the amount of exercise students got during recess, and gave teachers more time for instruction.)

Adam Parrott-Sheffer, principal of Peterson Elementary in North Park, says that his school has used Playworks for recess for two years.

Peterson, which lost two-thirds of its budget for the coming year, has nevertheless decided to try and keep Playworks.

“When we looked at discipline data and student/parent feedback, Playworks had a great benefit for every dollar spent,” Parrott-Sheffer notes. “Playworks costs Peterson about $25 a kid for the entire year.  For a program that not only keeps kids safe, but builds leaders and engages parents, that is a great deal.”

Playworks also develop students’ leadership skills, putting 4th-through 8th-grade students to work as coaches who teach games and conflict resolution to younger students.

Parrott-Sheffer says Peterson has selected as students potential peer coaches who “need a way to be connected and involved with the school.”

 You’ve got highly educated people you pay a lot for, doing something (that) other people could be passionate about,” he says.

Tamara Littlejohn, principal of Woodson South Elementary in Grand Boulevard, says she too is keeping the program and cites “the level of organization they bring with recess, the gains they have, the interactiveness.”

But at Corkery Elementary, budget cuts have put Playworks on the chopping block. What will take its place? “We haven’t figured it out yet. We’re working on that,” says Principal Carol Devens.

This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.

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