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The race for City Hall

Jobs and schools promise to be top issues in next year’s city elections. The mayor’s education agenda faces its toughest test in the African-American communities that gave him strong support in 2011.

Recess time headed for a rocky road

Budget cuts likely to make it harder for schools to fund recess staff.

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.


Susan wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

Recess should be a human right

The idea that recess is discretionary, distracting from "academic rigor," or can be withheld as a punishment shows how out of touch the corporate reform movement is with children. In K-5 especially, children need to move around frequently. In the early 1960's I was in a Catholic school from first to fifth grades. Here's how the day broke down: Off the bus, into the schoolyard to run around, play jump rope, hopscotch, basketball for 20-30 minutes. Bell rang. In our seats for 90 minutes. Back out in the yard for 15-20 minutes. In our seats for another hour. Off for lunch and more recess for an hour or so. Back in our seats for an hour. Out in the yard for another 15-20 minutes. Back in our seats for an hour. Dismissed by 3:00. Went home to play, usually outside, until dinner time. Nuns were out in the yard with us. There was little bullying, lots of movement, and lots of calm children when we were back in our seats. No surprise for any parent who knows how important it is to get their kids "outside to play."
Susan Crawford, Director
The Right to Read Project
Author of "Help! My Child Isn't Reading Yet -- What Should I Do?" (

Falls a'comin wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

If there is no money, there is no recess

Rahm wanted longer school day, it has to be paid for. Has anyone gotten the data on how many more injuires there are with Rahm's recess? These injuries and some serious, must be costing CPS a pretty penny.

Janet Meegan wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago


I really can't believe these comments. Everyone should be advocating for a LONGER recess. Your kids are acting like they never have before? You mean like kids? They need that play to figure out how to interact. You should be advocating for a teacher or a parent to monitor recess. You should be talking to the principal about how they play and have them fix it. That results in better teamwork in the classroom. These are skills they need to be successful in life. And injuries...really? Yeah, when kids play outside, they get a ball in the face and sometimes a scrape. I want my kid to come home dirty and scraped. It means he got to be a kid at school and not a test prep machine. When you were a kid, didn't you get hurt sometimes? Did that not help you avoid getting hurt in the future? My God. Advocate for kids being kids. The best skills come from play. As an educator or parent, you all should know that. What we should be angry about is that it is not properly funded and that at some schools it is being used as a reward and not a punishment.

Janet Meegan wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

more recess

* Sorry, meant to say, is being used as a reward and a having recess taken away as a punishment.

Julie T wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

Student learning

In Finland, ranked the best educational system in the world, the primary students have 15 minutes of recess EVERY HOUR, all throughout the day. Anyone who has spent any time with children knows how much learning goes on in free play and exploration. Children are naturally curious and social beings who need to have time and safe spaces to play every day, numerous times during the day. Twenty minutes once a day is a good start but more is needed.

Jason Held wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

Recess & Playworks

Thank you for focusing on recess. It is a critical part of the school day, and we are delighted to be part of it in Chicago Public Schools.

Last year, Playworks served 15 CPS low-income elementary and K-8 schools and will serve 18 schools this year. Our program is full-time, with our primary focus on teaching games and activities that help ensure that recess is safe, inclusive and fun for the kids. In addition, we work with classroom teachers leading students in class game time, run developmental and coed sports leagues and run a student leadership development program. The cost of the program in 2013-2014 school year to us is just over $70,000, but the schools pay $26,500 for a full-time program coordinator and we fund raise for the balance.

Because not every school has the budget or meets our low-income requirements, Playworks also offers a range of professional development opportunities to school staff and volunteers who work on the playground at recess. Our goal is that every child has a positive recess experience that translates into a productive learning environment and with training and support, we can empower our schools to provide it.

Celeste Morawski wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

dirty want your kid to come home dirty and scraped. Do you know how many injuries are sustained on a concrete parking lot? Many of these injured kids have parents just waiting to sue or ask for compensation for injuries. Recess when not provided for is a waste and a danger to the kids.

Janet meegan wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

Yes! Dirty and learning as opposed to clean and bored!

I disagree. I am at my sons school during recess. Kids get scraped and not one parent complains. I know because I work on the office and I call the parents to let them know why jr is going home with a bandaid. And yes I want my kid to be a kid. That includes getting dirty. Weren't you a kid? Didn't you ever scrape your knee or get dirty? Did you live in a sterile environment? Recess is never a waste of time. Children who don't learn how to play with each other are going to have serious social problems later. How much play did you have as a kid? Here's a reference for you. Play is important:

The Worst of Times wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

CPS, CPS, Make Me a Job!

"positive recess experience" OMG. It is the end of civilization as we know it. If all these make-work consultants would get out of the schools, teachers would be able to get about the business of teaching.

Falls a'comin wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

If you have access to student information and you are not a CPS

employee, it is none of your business to call parent's homes about their children's personal information or injury. Many parents would be upset by this at other schools as well as many parents who are getting attornies for the many serious injuries going on out there. There were a number of schools that had recess for years before Rahm came and goofed it up--with few injuires, now student injuries are 10 fold and much more serious.

Janet Meegan wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

Response to "Falls a comin"

Falls a comin (love the way I write my name and there all these anonymous posters),

I wrote in my post that I work at the school. I am in fact an employee at the school or was this past semester. My access to student information is used for the students and families. As an employee, I use the information at work and for work, discreetly like every other employee is supposed to. And I am the one who applies ice packs and bandaids so I kind of feel like it is my business, no actually my job to call parents about their child.

We were one of the schools that had recess before all this. Love it. Not long or frequent enough though.

If your school is having injuries that are much more serious, what is the problem? Inadequate supervision? Is your playground unsafe? Is there data somewhere you can point to that injuries have in fact gone up 10 fold? Where are these lawsuits you suggest are happening? These are issues that are not a problem with recess itself. You shouldn't advocate to get rid of recess because of that, you should make the playground safer. If that is a funding issue, then you should be in the streets and photographing and videotaping and arguing that those kids have a right to PLAY. Again, how much play and recess did you have as a kid and what makes you think that these kids should sit in a desk all day. Do you really expect them to be able to concentrate and perform well on the all mighty tests? Can you sit in a desk for 7 hours straight without a break? Do you have children? Can your children sit for that long and do work? I don't think my kids are the exception when I say I feel sorry for the adult in charge if they think they are going to make my kids sit that long.
I know a lot of parents across the city. I am involved in several parent groups and not one is complaining that their child is getting recess. I know lots of complaints about how recess time is being used. And I honestly don't know of one kid who has obtained a serious injury as a result of recess. Also, accidents happen. Sometimes they result in injury. Shy of keeping every kid in a bubble, you aren't going to prevent that.

Falls a'comin wrote 1 year 26 weeks ago

This is illegal--principals and LSC members cannot do this

'namely hire parents that are on the LSC who actually vote on their contracts'

Anonymous wrote 42 weeks 5 days ago

I do not agree: Recess is

I do not agree: Recess is dirty and dangerous. I have 3 children and they must go outdoors and play everyday at least 2 times a day. It's necessary to raise healthy kids. I work 8 hours a day and have a desk job, and I can NOT imagine sitting the entire day without breaks, getting up and talking a walk. It's necessary for kids to have recess. Danger only exists if the child has not been taught to play safely and watch himself. As parents we are teaching our children to be safe when we take them to play-lots and parks.

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