Recess takes break, lessons lengthen

By Karen Rouse
Denver Post Staff Writer

Denver Post

Article Last Updated:01/21/2007 11:22:03 PM MST


Greeley - During a recent morning at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School, Devin Smith was focused on fluency.

The 7-year-old popped a cassette into a tape recorder, slid a headset onto his ears and followed along in his storybook as a recorded voice enunciated each word.

"A gorilla is a big mean animal," he wrote in his notebook.

All around the second-grade class, Devin and his classmates were engaged in the business of literacy.

Then above the hubbub, an announcement over the intercom: "There will be an outside recess today."

Recess is not a foregone conclusion in Greeley or other districts around the country as they try to pack more instruction into the school day. The Greeley district is on notice to improve student performance, and recess - except during lunch - is optional.

Devin's class erupted in cheers at the announcement. "Yes!" said one student, pumping her arm in the air. But teacher Tina Lewis snapped them back to reality: "Even though we have an outside recess and everyone is excited, we still have 30 minutes of work to do," she said.

It is a message that has never been more clear in Greeley-Evans 6, a northern Colorado school district that was shaken up in November 2005 when the Colorado Department of Education placed it on academic watch: Work now, play later.

Unless scores on Colorado Student Assessment Program tests improve, the district of more than 18,500 students could lose its accreditation.

At issue is poor academic performance, said Michael Clough, a regional manager with the department.

In 2006, the district ranked 161st out of 178 school districts in CSAP reading scores - up from the 167th spot a year earlier, Clough said. When the district was put on watch in 2005, students "were performing 25 to 35 percent below their peer group across the state" in all subjects and racial groups, he said.

The district responded this year with an aggressive plan focused on academic success. And the school board banished scheduled recess periods - except for lunchtime recess - from its 17 elementary schools, upsetting some parents.

"My little boy came home and said, 'We don't get to go outside,"' said Barbara Niebauer, who has two children at McAuliffe.

He's gotten used to it, but she says she is "furious with the situation."

Nationally, as districts face state or federal sanctions for poor test scores, there are more reports of recess being curbed or cut so more time can be devoted to learning, said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Researchers have found a backlash as parents tie the reduction in exercise to an increase in obesity, or question whether opportunities to socialize are lost.

At McAuliffe, students during the 2005-06 school year had a 10- to 15-minute scheduled recess in addition to the 40 minutes they have for lunch and recess.

This year, the board said teachers could call an impromptu recess, but no longer would it be built into the day.

"What we're saying is if you're in the middle of a lesson … and you're doing some good things, you can continue your lesson," school-board member Linda Trimberger said.

"What we're looking at is not having the bell decide your instruction," she said.

The district also created a common elementary-school calendar that keeps all students in a particular grade level on the same schedule, regardless of school. For example, all first- graders in the district are in a literacy block from 8:40 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. each Monday.

And it adopted a common reading curriculum for all elementary schools.

Before the restructuring, there were "17 elementary schools, many of which had more than one reading program," Superintendent Renae Dreier said.

That was disruptive in a district where students frequently move from one school to another, she said. Now, Dreier said, "if you're 8 years old, 10 o'clock in the morning would be the same for you no matter where you (go to school)."

Nine of 17 elementary schools had some form of scheduled recess last school year. Another four had occasional recess, and four had none scheduled at all.

During the outdoor recess at McAuliffe, Bailey Wieneke stood in the playground, dressed in a coat with furry pink trim. She said she misses the extra playtime. "This is, like, the only recess we had," she said. But she admitted she likes some of the class learning activities.

Mason Anderson, also 8, said he "liked it when we went in the morning, at lunch and in the afternoon" but has adjusted to the new schedule.

Lewis said teachers helped students adjust to the change.

"We would get up and dance" in class, she said. They'd do "the twist or the chicken dance, just to get them moving."

Principal Sandy Cosner said she sympathized when "a pretty vocal group of parents" complained about not having a scheduled recess. But the need to raise achievement is urgent, she said.

"The reality is we're part of a larger district that's on watch," said Cosner. "We can't exclude ourselves."

Staff writer Karen Rouse can be reached at 303-954-1684 or moc.tsoprevned|esuork#moc.tsoprevned|esuork.

Re: "Recess takes a break as lessons lengthen," Jan. 22 news story.

Did the Greeley school board members ever go to school themselves? I think we need to get the Teamsters to represent elementary school students.

The Greeley educational adults took away the youngsters' break time in the a.m. and the p.m., and I would bet they've got their eyes on the kids' lunch next, all in the name of "learning," which evidently doesn't happen during recess.

I am more and more disheartened that things have seemed to work out with adults in charge of the lives of children because we make so many silly decisions "on their behalf."

One of the teachers in the article mentioned that the students stand up from time to time and do the Chicken Dance. The Chicken Dance is actually being done by the board members and educators as they make decisions and propagate policies more in line with the training of chickens than educating small persons who trust us to do the right thing.

Rocky Hill, Denver

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