First Person

Exploring the science of recess

AURORA – With 770 students squeezed into a school building designed to accommodate just 425, classroom space at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School is at a premium.

Elkhart Elementary's new Peaceful Playground has well-marked areas for structured play.

But Elkhart Principal Katie Hartenbach has started viewing the school’s newly refurbished playground as the most valuable classroom space of all.

The reason: “Recess really allows students to focus for the rest of the day,” said Hartenbach. “It’s very important. They need to get out, get that fresh air, get their wiggles out.”

Beyond offering a place where youngsters can burn off youthful energy, the playground is more and more becoming an extension of physical education class at Elkhart.

Like schools across Colorado concerned about meeting the new state mandates for physical activity time for students, Elkhart is leveraging recess into something more than just a break from academic studies.

Since receiving a $4,800 grant from Lowe’s to install a Peaceful Playground last month, the school has aligned its P.E. curriculum to teach students games and skills they can readily put into practice on the playground during recess.

And thanks to a partnership with nearby Anthem College, the school has tapped college work/study students to act as playground coaches, helping to engage the youngsters in supervised active play.

“Our school is so huge,” Hartenbach said. “Having structure to the games and having defined areas on the playground really helps maintain control. Everyone on recess duty understands what the expectations are. We’ve developed much better playground supervision, and most students are now engaged in active games during recess.”

Local schools kicking up recess a notch

Across the metro area, more and more schools are taking recess up a notch, investing in playground upgrades, bringing in recess coaches, and moving recess to before lunch – so children don’t sacrifice nutritionally necessary lunch time in order to get a few more minutes of play time.

For example, Playworks, a California-based national non-profit organization that sends trained full-time recess coordinators into low-income urban schools, has established programs in 12 metro-area schools and expects to expand into four more by January.

Learning Landscapes, a program of the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning, will dedicate 11 new playgrounds at DPS schools this fall, raising to 92 the number of playgrounds Learning Landscapes has transformed into colorful, well-designed, kid-friendly havens.

State bucks national trend

While an estimated 40 percent of elementary schools nationwide have eliminated recess, Colorado seems to be moving the opposite direction, embracing recess.

Denver's Cory Elementary is one of the latest to get a Learning Landscape playground.

Terra A. Gillett, of Thornton, serves as “recess advocate” for Colorado for USA IPA, the American affiliate of the International Play Association. The organization, which lobbies across the country for children’s right to play, has appointed such advocates in nearly every state to serve as watchdogs and to help guide parents to protect school recess if it is threatened.

Gillett, a Homeland Security specialist, acknowledges that while the loss of recess is a huge issue in some other states, that’s not the case in Colorado.

“We haven’t had a serious problem with this,” she said. “There was one school in Colorado Springs that was thinking of eliminating recess, but they dropped that idea. Then there was a little bit of an issue in Greeley, but that got remedied.

“I just haven’t heard of anything else going on in Colorado. I don’t know why, but it seems like the East Coast is where recess has been hit really bad.”

Quality of recess still varies widely

Andrea Woolley, executive director of Playworks Denver, said that while most elementary schools in Colorado do retain some form of recess, the quality and quantity of that recess can vary dramatically.

“Recess can be anything from 10 minutes to 40 minutes a day,” she said. “And the outcomes are different.”

Woolley said all the schools who brought in Playworks programs last year experienced a drop in disciplinary complaints, as well as a reduction in injuries sustained on the playground.

“Kids at Playworks schools get an average of 30 minutes of physical activity, but they’re also engaged in games more often, and they’re learning new social skills,” Woolley said.

“They’re learning leadership and empathy. And they’re learning new skills, like how to hit a baseball or how to kick a soccer ball. We make physical activity and games enticing, so instead of gossiping under a tree, the kids are getting engaged.”

Teachers at schools with Playworks programs report getting back roughly 24 hours of extra instruction time each year, she said, because the children come back more focused and ready to learn after they’ve had structured, active recess time.

Various strategies to fund the cost

Playworks can be pricey – $52,000 for a full-time recess coach, half of which the school must fund, while Playworks picks up the other half.

Aurora

“For each school, funding Playworks is a different journey,” Woolley said. “Some have it right in their budget and that’s the end of the conversation. Others pull some of it from other line items and have fund-raisers to cover the rest. At another school, the PTO raised the money. Each school does it differently.”

Peaceful Playgrounds is a less costly, more do-it-yourself alternative.

Rather than investing in actual playground structures and equipment, Peaceful Playgrounds provides blueprints and stencils for creating well-defined play areas such as four-square, hopscotch, Twister and other longstanding recess favorites. And rather than sending in outside recess coaches, Peaceful Playgrounds offers online training and webinars to teach school staff how to play the games and how to teach them to the children.

Elkhart is currently the only school in Aurora to have a fully functional Peaceful Playground, but four others – at Paris, Park Lane, Wheeling and Fulton elementaries – are soon to open. In addition, three outdoor and three indoor Peaceful Playgrounds will be raffled off to other schools soon, APS officials say.

“The kids are absolutely loving it,” said Hartenbach. “It’s very colorful. The first day, you’d have thought we had a brand new playground. We painted lanes for running and we had relay races. It really is spectacular.”

In addition, Elkhart got a supply of jump ropes, tether balls, beanbags, hula hoops, flying discs and other such playground necessities to put the newly stenciled game areas to proper use.

“It’s making our playground a much safer place,” Hartenbach said. “I love how it creates a systematic way to engage the kids in play. Most of all, it’s given me peace of mind, knowing our kids are safe. Because having so many kids out there, that’s our biggest worry as a school. I feel we have a good system for that now.”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.