Break time

No recess is the norm for 6,000 Detroit students.  Here’s how that could change.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Students at Detroit's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy line up to go to recess. Recess isn't guaranteed to students are more than a dozen other district elementary schools.

Add recess to the list of basics that students have done without in Detroit.

A generation of Detroit children raised in a state-run school district has missed out on classes in art, gym, and music. They attended classrooms without certified teachers inside un-airconditioned, crumbling school buildings as emergency managers looked for cost savings.

More than 6,000 children were even denied something as essential as daily recess, according to records obtained by Chalkbeat.

Recess did not appear at all on the master schedules of nine elementary schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District last year. Another eight district schools set aside recess time for students in only a few grades.

Even in schools with no scheduled recess, some students are allowed to go outside for some of their half-hour lunch period. Other schools send students outside three days a week, students and parents told Chalkbeat. And when recess isn’t on the schedule, teachers are empowered to cancel free time if students misbehave.

None of these schools provide what researchers and parents insist is an indispensable part of the school day: a daily chance for a student to use her outside voice while exploring the physical world with her peers.

Recess “is not really a privilege, it’s a necessity,” said Marlisia Crawford, mother of two students at Nolan elementary, which has no regularly scheduled recess. (See the full list below.)

She is backed up by researchers who insist that recess is an indispensable part of the school day.  Repeated studies have found that students who have unstructured play time not only pay more attention in class, but also are less likely to suffer from health problems like myopia and obesity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics calls recess a “crucial and necessary component of a child’s development,” citing the “cognitive, social, emotional and physical benefits” of unstructured play.

Kathleen Burris, an expert on play at Middle Tennessee State University, told Chalkbeat that recess helps students learn in ways that are not possible in a structured classroom setting.

“Administrators who diminish recess to provide for more instructional time miss a significant learning opportunity,” she said.

As parents sound the alarm about recess in Detroit, their concerns are not falling on deaf ears.

A new crop of district leaders say the district has already taken steps to ensure that every school has recess next year.

“It should not even be up for discussion,” said Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, vice-president of the school board. Recess “should just be the norm in our district.”

She believes that the school board inherited the problem when it regained control from the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for much of the past two decades. “Budget cuts,” she said, simply.

Reinstating recess will be among the challenges faced by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti as he enters his second year on the job. Earlier this year, the school board created a policy requiring schools to provide recess and gym class.

“We believe recess and unstructured play improves overall behavior, focus, health and student achievement,” Vitti said in a prepared statement, adding: “starting this year, we allot 50 minutes for lunch and recess in grades K-8. Next year, schools cannot withhold students from physical activity for academic or disciplinary reasons.”

Finding staff to supervise students at outdoor recess could be a challenge, especially for a district already rushing to fill more than 200 vacancies inside the classroom this summer.

When Peterson-Mayberry’s children were in elementary school, she says she volunteered to supervise a recess hour. Without the extra help, teachers at the school wouldn’t have been able to let the students go outside.

The district held its first job fair of the summer, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to fill roughly 200 teaching vacancies — a number that could grow over the summer as teachers in the district’s aging workforce decide to retire.

Students at Brewer Academy, a K-8 school on the city’s far east side, haven’t had classes in art, music, or gym in recent years. They also haven’t had a regularly scheduled recess.

It’s tough on younger kids especially, said Ansariah Musafir, who works as an aide at Brewer, where her daughter is also enrolled. “They have a lot of energy, and they have to channel it,” she said.

When recess isn’t built into the day, playtime is either reduced or left up to the whims of individual staff members, Musafir said.

“The kids would go out more” if recess were regularly scheduled, she said of the situation at Brewer.

Recess is not Detroit’s problem alone, said Angela Rogensues, executive director of Playworks Michigan, a non-profit that works to give students more access to playtime. She told Chalkbeat that schools without recess are not uncommon across Michigan.

Only a handful of states require schools to offer recess, and Michigan is not among them. So in the early 2000s, when the federal government began pushing schools to improve their scores on high-stakes tests, she said, recess was an easy target.

“A lot of it comes from an intense scrutiny around academics, and less of a focus on the social-emotional learning that kids garner through play,” she said.

That approach makes sense to parents who feel that the district’s rock bottom test scores demand extraordinary measures.

“I don’t feel like school is for recess,” said De Brown, father of a second- and fifth-grader at Brewer. “School is for studying.”

A blue sky greeted students at Nolan Elementary School on the last day of classes. It was field day — a day of outdoor games and sports — and district officials were using the occasion to unveil a summer advertising campaign designed to boost enrollment.

When the press conference was over, students streamed out of the school wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the district’s newly revealed logo, ready for a day of outdoor play.

Nolan’s daily schedule, however, tells a different story. It allots zero minutes to recess for students in grades K-5. Nolan also lacks a gym teacher.

As he waited for the festivities to begin, Rickey Harris, father of a first-grader at Nolan, said playtime shouldn’t be a special occasion.

Recess “should be a set aside time, it shouldn’t be spontaneous,” he said.

Scroll to see whether recess is scheduled at your elementary school.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.