Fight Looms Over Chicago School Day

In Chicago, the nation's third largest school system starts a new school year at a crossroads: a new mayor and his new schools chief are trying to shake up the status quo. But teachers say they want the extra instructional time to be time well spent.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: The new school year starts this week in Chicago. And in a couple of schools, the day will be 90 minutes longer than last year. The new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and his team of school leaders complain that Chicago's public schools have among the shortest school days in the country. But last week, the teacher's union rejected a proposed longer day. It was accompanied by a negligible increase in pay. Now, the Emanuel administration will have to fight this battle one school at a time. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: I'm standing outside of Melody Elementary School on Chicago's west side - a school that serves mostly low income, African-American students. It's a little after 2:45 in the afternoon. The school bell just rang. That would normally signify the end of the school day after just five hours and 45 minutes. That's not nearly enough instructional time according to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He's been pushing schools like this one to lengthen their school day by 90 minutes. And the teachers here at Melody just voted to waive a provision of their union contract to do just that.

JOHN BARNES: If it's going to benefit the kids, you know, fine.

SCHAPER: John Barnes lives a few doors down from Melody School and sends his grandkids there. None of the school's teachers nor the principal would talk about the decision, but Barnes says he'll be happy to see students go to school earlier and stay later.

BARNES: They get enough play time. They need more learning time.

SCHAPER: New Chicago Schools CEO Jean Claude Brizard couldn't agree more. The former Rochester and New York City administrator and teacher says when compared to the national average, school children in Chicago spend 10,000 fewer minutes in the classroom each year, and he says it's not just because of a shorter day.

JEAN CLAUDE BRIZARD: Well, you have a school year that's 10 days shorter than the minimum requirement in New York State, where I worked for 25 years. So, it puts Chicago at a disadvantage.

SCHAPER: After rescinding a 4 percent pay raise due to teachers this summer to help erase a $700 million budget deficit, late last month Brizard suddenly said the city could afford a 2 percent raise for teachers if they'd agree to work a 90-minute longer day. The Chicago Teachers Union said no way.

KAREN LEWIS: Teachers want to be appropriately compensated, because our school day doesn't end when the clock is off.

SCHAPER: Teacher's union president Karen Lewis says lengthening classroom time also means teachers will spend more time planning lessons, grading papers, and doing other work before and after school. In addition, Lewis contends simply lengthening the school day won't necessarily result in better student achievement.

LEWIS: This is not about quantity, it's about quality - what is going on during the school day.

SCHAPER: Lewis says if all teachers are doing with the longer day is more standardized test prep, studies show students may not end up better off.

LEWIS: We want a full, rich, broad curriculum, because that's what increases student achievement.

SCHAPER: Interestingly, schools CEO Brizard uses almost the same exact words when asked what he wants schools to do with more time. But as of right now, there is no clear plan for what Chicago schools would do with the longer school day. Two of the schools that are voluntarily lengthening their school day will get $150,000 each to develop plans for the extra time. The third school, which isn't starting until January, gets $75,000. And on the issue of teacher pay, Brizard says:

BRIZARD: One premise: I really believe that teachers ought to be paid fairly, a fair wage. They're hardworking people and they deserve it. Chicago, though, has not been unfair when it comes to teachers' salaries. We have the highest starting salary of most major cities in America.

SCHAPER: Teachers in Chicago earn on average $69,000 a year. Nonetheless, the teachers in the three schools that voted for the longer day will be getting bonuses. That extra cash equals the 2 percent raise the union rejected. And that, the teachers union says, amounts to bribery. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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