Elementary schools phasing out recess

Tue, Mar 9, 2004 (10:56 a.m.)

Recess at Clark County School District elementary schools is out as school officials try to wring as much teaching time as possible out of the school day.

Facing the pressure to increase test scores under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school officials are enforcing regulations that bar the traditional elementary school ritual of recess.

That decision isn't sitting well with some parents, teachers or students.

"We used to run around outside and play with the big orange classroom ball," Doris Reed Elementary School second grader Adrian Young said. "I miss recess."

Adrian and his schoolmates, who this year saw recess stopped, are not alone. Throughout the district, recess -- once a staple of daily schedules -- has been phased out over the past few years to give teachers more teaching time.

Schools in Clark County and the rest of the nation are faced with the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for schools to show annual progress on standardized tests or face sanctions. But attempts during the last three legislative sessions to lengthen Nevada's school day have failed, forcing educators to squeeze out additional instructional minutes wherever possible.

"If you have a 15-minute recess scheduled you spend five minutes getting (students) to the playground, another five getting back and then five more minutes getting them calmed down and ready to learn back in the classroom," said Agustin Orci, deputy superintendent of instruction for the district. "You end up blowing 30 minutes of potential instructional time to gain the limited benefits of having recess. It's become a luxury we can't afford."

The district's elementary students still have a 30-minute lunch period that includes time on the playground. There is also an allowed bathroom break in the morning and afternoon.

The informal policy of allowing teachers the option of a 15- to 20-minute morning or afternoon recess has been eliminated at most campuses in favor of brief trips to the restroom and water fountains.

"If we had a longer school day we would love to have recess," said Allen Coles, superintendent of the district's southwest region, where no schools have a separate recess period. "But we have more math to teach and more reading to do and something had to go. It's a question of priorities -- and right now the priority is in the core academic areas."

The state requires elementary schools to offer a minimum of three hours and 10 minutes of daily instruction. The average elementary school day in Clark County -- including lunch and special classes such as physical education or art -- is seven hours and 11 minutes, according district officials.

Martha Young, associate dean of the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the length of the school day isn't as important as the quality of instruction.

"We've unfortunately bought into the idea that more is better and that isn't always going to be the case, particularly when you're talking about elementary school students," Young said. "In some cases you have a 12-hour school day and not make any more progress than you would in six hours."

Studies have shown that students do benefit from a break in instruction, Young said. But when that break occurs -- and what follows it in the curriculum -- are also important, Young said.

"Research suggests recess should be an essential component of the school day," Young said. "Unfortunately with the push of No Child Left Behind I don't think we're going to see it re-integrated."

Reed Principal Judye Conner said she decided to clear up any confusion about the district's instructional minutes requirement when she arrived as principal in January. Some teachers were following the directive while others were not, Conner said.

"I made it clear to teachers that were taking those breaks that the time was to be allocated for instruction," Conner said. "If you don't use instructional time for instruction, can you improve student achievement?"

Sue Defrancesco, assistant superintendent of the district's northwest region which includes Reed, said the informal practice by teachers of allowing restless students extra recess isn't condoned. And with the district's new emphasis on more interactive teaching methods, students are moving around within classrooms, Defrancesco said.

"It's not like the old days when you were in your seat at 8 and didn't move from the row until the bell rings at 11," Defrancesco said. "I don't think kids have that sense of, 'I've been stuck here for three hours and I need to get outside.' "

Matthew Young, president of Reed's PTA and Adrian's father, disagreed.

"I think at a young age they need to burn off the energy and get outside," Young said. "That's too long to be cooped up in school."

Young said he was also unhappy with how Conner handled the scheduling change. Parents were not notified and found out only when their children came home to complain, Young said.

"My phone has been ringing nonstop with parents complaining," Young said.

Conner said she met with the PTA's executive board to explain the change and expected they would spread the word. There were no plans to send a letter home with students, Conner said.

Terry Hickman, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said he is familiar with the schedule change at Reed -- his wife is a second grade teacher at the school.

Similar scenes are occurring at schools throughout Clark County and the rest of the state, Hickman said.

"The district is wanting teachers to spend as much time as possible teaching the standards, which I applaud, but it's so important for students to have physical exercise," Hickman said. "A 6-year-old should not be expected to work for three hours straight."

Another issue is that elimination of recess means teachers also don't get a respite other than the lunch period, which is often used to prepare for the afternoon's classes, Hickman said.

Janet Andrews, Hickman's wife and a Clark County first grade teacher for 18 years, said she realizes Conner had no choice but to bring Reed in line with the district's regulations. However, Andrews said, giving up the mid-morning break has been tough for her class. "I do understand we were out of compliance but I can't say having that break wasn't beneficial for the students," Andrews said. "We're stressing academics but without any time left for children to develop their socialization skills."

D.J. Stutz, president of the Nevada PTA, said when her organization meets for its annual convention next month members will vote on a resolution that calls for returning recess to the school schedule.

Having a recess break is essential to children's health and their ability to learn, Stutz said.

"Obesity is a serious issue for our children and P.E. classes are disappearing everywhere," Stutz said. "No union would allow their workers to go that long without a break -- how can we expect it of our children?"

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