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The fifth discussion item on the Jan. 11 agenda of School District 65’s Policy Committee drew about 20 speakers to the meeting. Almost overnight, recess had become a hot topic.

Policy Committee chair Suni Kartha said Board members had received many emails from parents who are concerned that their children had been denied recess as punishment for academic or disciplinary reasons.

Committee members listened to stories – for the most part from parents – of how children feel about being deprived of recess and to teachers and one principal, who said they felt that at times it is appropriate to shorten a child’s recess time for a few minutes as punishment for inappropriate behavior.

 “The question became, ‘If this becomes something we want to set Board policy on, what will that look like and how do we incorporate the teachers’ perspective?’” said Ms. Kartha.

Superintendent Paul Goren said, “There are multiple perspectives on this from where I sit, where the team sits.” He said recess can be used for discipline but it is also important to recognize the importance of recess and play in the school day.

One parent asked if the Board comes up with a policy on recess, “whose responsibility is this? Because now it goes from unstructured play to structured punishment.”

Some parents said their children had suffered emotionally – one even dreading to go to school – because of having been kept in at recess.

Another parent said her kindergarten daughter “has had her clothes pulled off at recess. The child who is causing the environment that could harm other children should be pulled out of recess.”

Still another parent called “for a recess policy that makes it a sacred time at school – free from academic intervention and disciplinary measures – except for safety reasons.”

Paula Zelinski, president of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers’ union), said she had “a few thoughts about this, since it had been discussed recently by the DEC board. “Teachers do not want to have their professional judgment taken away from them [about depriving a student of recess].

“Teachers say they have students who want to do extra work during lunch – and the teachers are also giving up their time for this. … Teachers want to be heard on when a child should go to recess.” Finally, she said, “there is a lot going on in the classroom. It’s not unfettered play time, but kids move around a lot in the classroom.”

Kindergarten teacher Jean Luft, who is also a past president of DEC, said she is a “big supporter of recess, physical movement and whole-child development.” She requested that any policy “not be a firm statement without options. … The trend right now is not to have zero-tolerance policies. So let’s have a case-by-case policy.”

Another teacher said, “As a teacher, I do not enjoy taking away recess. … Sometimes when we make a call, a parent takes care of [the problem]. Taking away recess for five minutes gives children immediate consequences and holds them accountable and makes a safe learning environment for all children. … Make it so all children can learn safely – that’s the only way we have when you have a classroom of 22 kids. … When something happens and the children know the consequences, all the children in the room feel safer and it’s a better environment for everyone.”

“I think some of you might be surprised at what we do,” said Jerry Michael, principal at Willard School. “We don’t go straight to recess [as a place for punishment]; our staff members are not one-trick ponies. We value free time. If you’ve ever sat in a six-hour meeting, you know that it becomes mind-numbing and that’s magnified for our children.”

District 65 parent Miriam Haak Barnett said even if a child is moving around in a classroom, “it’s not her choice.” 

On Jan. 10, Ms. Barnett started a petition on Facebook asking that the District craft a policy on recess, and by the time of the meeting, she had collected 300 signatures.  “We need to look at recess as a sacred time for our kids…does this consequence change behavior? I question that.”

Board member Jennifer Phillips said a policy on recess would be a value statement. “We should think of recess as an integral part of the day – not a 20-minute afterthought. … I think taking recess seriously is a way to advance our strategic plan goals. 

Board member Candance Chow said it was “a big open question whether you can have a policy” on recess “versus having administrative guidelines with a hierarchy of consequences.”

Board member Claudia Garrison said, “I worry about if we as a Board were to place a blanket policy. Would we be stifling the creativity of our wonderful teachers? I think most teachers know how important these breaks are. I feel we have to tread very carefully and not interfere where a Board should not interfere.”

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said, “We all agree there should not be a blanket policy … [but] there might be a way to craft a policy.” She also said that, when her family moved to the District 13 years ago, there were two recesses. “I think we should look at adding back in that second recess.”

Ms. Kartha said she agreed, particularly for children in the lower grades. “What I see are a couple of issues: concerns about policy … and [the fact that other people] than a teacher withhold recess – luncheon staff, for example. How do we train our luncheon staff? I’ve certainly heard that luncheon staff takes away recess for loudness – not safety.”

Ms. Kartha also said that the Board wants administrators to have a “laser focus” on achievement issues at present and she did not know how they could take the time to craft a good policy.

Ms. Phillips said the policy would be a “values statement. There’s a question of ‘Where does this conversation go?’ Without some steps forward, we’re not going to get anywhere on this. … If we come up with a statement that was a policy on kids’ rights and respectful of teachers. … I feel the way forward is unclear.”

Dr. Goren said he appreciated the “heartfelt comments across a wide range of experiences.” He said he had heard some concerns about not having a blanket policy but one that reflects parents’ concerns for the health and well-being of the child, some questions about staff and training, some reminders to respect teachers and their professional judgment.

“These are the broad ideas we’re going to have to put together as a team. … We will tap into parents’ perspective and tap into teachers’ and professionals’ opinions,” he said, and try to come up with something that not only “honors the child” but also addresses safety issues.

“There are certain values that have to be considered and certain guidelines that have to be considered, he said, and he added that, with the achievement gap still paramount, he could not promise that he and the other administrators would be able to craft a statement – let alone a policy – by April 18, the next meeting of the Policy Committee.

Ms. Phillips pressed the committee members to ask the full Board “whether recess should be viewed as a [means of] punishment and academic punishment. … We have no way to track it right now so we have no way of knowing how big an issue this is for the District.”

Ms. Chow said, “To move forward with policy, we need a Board commitment to the policy. I’m not convinced we need a policy. I feel like we have to have a little more information that a Board policy is needed.”

“Do you believe recess is important to the whole child and social-emotional learning? [A policy on recess] could have an effect on the achievement gap,” Ms. Phillips said. “I think that matters.”

Ms. Quattrocki said, “I have seen that there were 300 signatures collected overnight, so I don’t think the Board can walk away from it. The question is, ‘Is this Board behind doing something? What would it be? Collecting more data? Getting information from teachers?’ We need the whole Board to decide whether to move forward.”

Dr. Goren said he would like to “come back with administrative guidelines, look at some of the framing with professional learning, survey our colleagues over time, work with Ms. Zelinski and the principals. I can see coming back with broad guidelines. Whether it would become a policy is up to the Board.”

“I think that’s a good way to proceed,” said Ms. Quattrocki.