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Chicago Issues Guide to Bring Back Recess

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For six years, Lynn Morton and her parent activist group POWER-PAC have fought for recess in Chicago’s elementary schools. With the release this week of a new Chicago Public Schools guide to implementing recess, it looks like the work is finally paying off.

The guide, developed in tandem with community groups like POWER-PAC’s parent organization Community Organizing and Family Issues, outlines the process by which individual schools can go about putting a play break back in the school day.

The guide recommends that next year be a planning year and that the following year, recess could be a reality for all children. However, the guide stops short of a mandate.

“Recess should be considered a vital and healthy part of a complete school day for all of our students,” said former Interim Schools CEO Terry Mazany in a statement.

The CPS guide is the latest in a series of victories for recess proponents. In December, POWER-PAC helped persuade the state legislature to form a task force to investigate barriers to recess at schools and make recommendations on overcoming them.

Also, the North Side parent group Raise Your Hand joined the effort with the launch of its Fit for Learning Initiative. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has come out in support of recess.

“Play is a basic human right,” said Nancy Zwick, who chairs a wellness committee at Inter-American Magnet, during Fit for Learning’s first open parent meeting. “Our kids need it as a part of every day of their lives.”

Most Chicago schools have been without recess since the 1970s. Only a handful currently schedule regular recess. The decision to do so is left up to individual schools, a provision of the contract between the district and the Chicago Teachers’ Union.

Under the contract, a committee comprised of administrators, teachers and parents votes to determine a school’s scheduling policy, including whether to schedule recess. However, union officials say that process doesn’t happen anymore.

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The new guide clarifies and tweaks that process by requiring schools to set up a recess committee. That committee must hold open meetings before the end of each school year to decide whether an individual school will offer recess the next year.

And though CTU initially pushed back at Emanuel’s recess proposal in April, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey recently said that the union was “warm” to the idea of recess.

“We think recess is actually good for us as well,” he said, noting the opportunity for more teacher break time throughout the day. “When I show up at a school, often the first thing a teacher says to me is ‘I gotta go to the bathroom.’”

But universal recess may still be a long way off. POWER-PAC has also seen multiple legislative efforts to mandate recess in Illinois fail. Those who oppose it worry about the top-down imposition of a policy on schools that lack sufficient resources. Also, some worry that children in high-crime neighborhoods could be put in danger by playing outside.

Recess proponents say such situations are still manageable. They also point out that recess for children in poor minority communities may be the only time for children to spend unstructured time outdoors.

“[A lack of] physical activity and being outside in general is something that disproportionately affects minority communities,” said Tracy Occomy Crowder, a senior organizer at Community Organizing and Family Issues. “Those are actually the areas where you really need to make it happen. This could be one opportunity for the kids to do anything outside, which makes it more imperative for recess to actually happen in those communities.”

Morton says she became involved in the fight for recess after noticing a child in the hallway of her son’s school. The little boy would be sitting, by himself, outside a classroom.

The boy had misbehaved and was being given a time-out by the teacher. Without a regularly scheduled recess, there was no way for stir-crazy students to get out of their classroom.

When he started feeling antsy, the little boy acted up, earning himself a reprieve.

“He just needed a break,” Morton said. “All kids need that.”

Vol. 30, Issue 33

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