Survey: recess, gym class shortchanged

Print More
No recess protest

No recess protest

Instead of the daily physical education classes mandated by the state, a Catalyst Chicago telephone survey found that one to two days of gym class per week is the norm in elementary schools.

No recess is also the norm. Fewer than one in five schools—18 percent—provide daily scheduled recess for all kids, and only about one in 16—6 percent—provide for a recess of at least 20 minutes, the survey found.

For the survey, Catalyst contacted 487 schools to ask about their policies on recess and physical education. The state’s requirement for daily gym class has long been flouted in Chicago and other districts (see accompanying story).

Schools can count recess toward the physical education requirement if it is supervised by a reasonable number of certified teachers and involves a structured activity rather than free play, according to Donna Luallen, the head of the Accountability Division at the Illinois State Board of Education.

Most elementary schools provided a recess period 30 years ago, when schools had a 45-minute lunch period. It went by the wayside as schools began to opt instead for a 20-minute lunch and shorter school day. Now, switching back to the 45-minute lunch requires approval of the faculty, under the Chicago Teachers Union contract.

Some principals interviewed for the survey said they favored the 45-minute lunch with recess, but their teachers had rejected it in favor of the shorter day. Others thought they had too few teacher aides on staff to supervise a recess period, or wondered what to do with students during inclement weather. Some mistakenly believed it was a School Board decision, and others said they had simply never considered it.

Academic, disciplinary benefits

But at schools that have adopted the longer day with recess, staff members say they wouldn’t give it up. “Kids get to work off their energy and form friends,” reports teacher Janet Caluris at Peterson Elementary in North Park. “It gets the brain cells going again. Discipline problems go down.”

At Nettelhorst Elementary in Lake View, Principal Susan Kurland rearranged the school day to allow students about 15 minutes of recess in addition to their 20-minute lunch, but she did it in an unconventional way: Instead of extending the school day, an option that teachers generally reject, she got their permission to lengthen the lunch break for students and teachers by taking 20 minutes from their morning preparation time.

The recess period is supervised by auxiliary staff, including the gym teacher, music teacher and counselors, who take their break for lunch at a separate time from classroom teachers.

Kurland pushed for recess because research demonstrates the link between health, exercise and academic achievement. “If they’re not having their needs met, it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching,” she insists.

Some parents are becoming increasingly concerned, and vocal, about the lack of physical activity in schools.

In June, a parent advocacy group called Power-Pac staged an event at Douglas Park field house, at which 50 children were symbolically freed from a jail cell for the summer vacation. “Our children … spend six hours in their classrooms without a break,” says a press release from Power-Pac, which is trained and supported by the non-profit group Community Organizing and Family Issues.

With 30 active parent members mainly from the Englewood, Austin, West Town and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, Power-Pac is working to reinstitute recess as a way to curb student discipline problems and rising suspension rates in elementary schools. Typically, schools with more low-income students are less likely to offer recess, yet are more likely to have high suspension rates.

The lack of recess is aggravated by another concern: This year, for the first time, small elementary schools were permitted to drop gym class altogether.

Under the district’s staffing formula, schools with 15 or fewer classroom teachers—which typically enroll about 400 or fewer students—are allocated one part-time gym teacher and one part-time librarian. Budget Director Pedro Martinez allowed those schools, as a convenience, to simply choose to staff one of those positions full-time and drop the other, according to the Office of Communications.

According to the CPS Budget Office, as of the end of September, 19 elementary schools did not have board-funded gym teachers.

Interns Tariq Ahmad, Leah Banks and Nekita Thomas contributed to this report.

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or e-mail duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.