The sound of children on a school playground is common, but not so much in Chicago. Because of a short school day, more than half the public elementary schools in Chicago have no recess at all.


That would change under Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to lengthen the school day. Many parents like the notion of more recess, but question the rest of the mayor's plan. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: At five hours and 45 minutes, Chicago's public schools have among the shortest days in the country. That's why most schools don't have recess, and at those that do, it's shockingly short.

WENDY KATTEN: We have a 10-minute recess and a 10-minute lunch at our school. It's not sufficient.

SCHAPER: Wendy Katten is the parent of a third-grader. She and a group of other parents from around the city meet me by the playground at Drummond School, one of the few that do have a longer day and longer recess. It's where Jonathan Goldman sends his kids.

JONATHAN GOLDMAN: There's a huge body of research that shows, in terms of the physical activity, that it does directly improve educational outcomes for the rest of the stuff that the kids are doing during the day.

SCHAPER: And on this point, these parents and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel agree. Speaking at a magnet school that has voluntarily lengthened its day to seven and a half hours, Emanuel said the rest of the city's much shorter school day creates what he calls false choices.

MAYER RAHM EMANUEL: And that is the notion that teachers and principals and parents and students have to pick between social studies versus science, math versus music, reading versus recess.

SCHAPER: Since taking office almost a year ago, Emanuel has been pushing to lengthen the day to seven and a half hours in every school, making it among the longest days in the country. Teachers balked, with the Chicago Teachers Union demanding not just higher pay for additional time, but more classroom resources, and more teachers, too. And many parents complained about the 30-percent-longer day too as being too long. So Emanuel is backing down a bit, saying the school system will adopt a seven-hour day for elementary schools next year, to go along with 10 additional school days.

EMANUEL: That comes to 40 additional days of instruction. On a five-day week, that's eight weeks more of learning.


SCHAPER: Emanuel and school administrators say more time in the classroom is critical to improving student performance and will lead to better test scores and higher graduation rates. But there is some debate around the country over whether just more time equals better results. And almost a year after Emanuel began his push for a longer day, Chicago school officials provide few details about what exactly they'll do with the extra time, or how they'll pay for it. And that upsets many parents around the city. Top school officials have been holding neighborhood forums on the longer day, promising, without specifics, that the additional classroom time will be quality time. But after one such meeting, parent Carmen Rodriguez, who's on the local school council and the PTA at her kids' school, questions the quality of the time students have now.

CARMEN RODRIGUEZ: I feel like it's so chaotic. It's so lacking in organization, in just updated thinking. I just don't think 30 minutes or 60 minutes changes that. I just think it's just 30 or 60 minutes of more chaos and disorganization and poor management.

SCHAPER: In response to the push for a longer day, parents around the city have created all kinds of grassroots organizations to fight back, some wanting to ensure quality, others advocating for more arts and music, and some just focusing on a particular length: six and a half hours. Many parents, including Michelle Bever, fear the extra time will only be used for more standardized test prep.

MICHELLE BEVER: I truly, truly worry that all it's going to be is more drill and pill, and just math and reading shoved down their throats.

SCHAPER: Mayor Emanuel and Chicago school officials say they want to add art, music and foreign languages, too, but they won't say where the money for it will come from. The chronically cash-strapped Chicago public school system is already projecting a six to $700 million deficit for next year without a longer day. So when Mayor Emanuel claims more classroom time is an opportunity for kids, parent Nellie Cotton says...

NELLIE COTTON: Well, I have the opportunity to go Nordstrom. It doesn't mean I have the money to buy anything.

SCHAPER: Chicago school principals have until the end of the month to submit plans for what they'd like to do with the extra class time. However, they've been given no idea what their budgets for the extra time will be. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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