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

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.