A longer school day seems a done deal for Chicago Public Schools students (for six of approximately 450 elementary schools, this is already the case, with more to follow in January). How that will play out, potentially in the 2012 school year, was the focus of a passionate discussion held Tuesday night at Coonley Elementary, 4046 N. Leavitt St., sponsored by Raise Your Hand.
“We’ve heard this is coming and we have no idea what it looks like. We need to speak now and not complain about it after,” Sonia Kwon, Raise Your Hand steering committee member, told the approximately 100 attendees who packed Coonley’s gymnasium.
Raise Your Hand (RYH), an advocacy group for improving public education in Chicago and Illinois, is one of approximately 30 organizations with a seat on CPS’ Longer School Day Advisory Committee. “We are all CPS parents. We know what it feels like to have kids at three different schools,” Kwon said of RYH. “We really do have skin in the game.”
To take the pulse of its constituency, RYH surveyed members on a host of issues related to the longer school day. The results, culled from 1,200 respondents representing more than 200 schools, were shared at the meeting and will be presented to the CPS task force.
“This survey is the voice of parents,” said Jill Wohl, RYH steering committee. And this is what parents are saying: while the majority of them, 68 percent, are “receptive” to the idea of a longer school day (and “receptive” was an important nuance, noted Wohl), few of them, only 16 percent, support the full 7.5 hour day proposed by CPS. The major concern was quality of time versus quantity.
Music, art, social studies, recess and gym, termed “enrichment programs” by CPS (“Because only rich kids can afford it?” asked Kwon), were all mentioned on parents’ wish lists for constructive use of the extended school day. “When you give a menu to a starving person, they want everything,” said Wohl, “except test preparation.”
Patricia O’Keefe, the RYH steering committee member who serves on the CPS advisory group, is cautiously optimistic that these opinions will be heard. She described the initial task force meeting, held in early September, as a “vibrant dialogue” in which the various representatives reached an “overwhelming agreement that we need a well-rounded day for students.”
“Everyone is viewing this as a process. That’s why we have the advisory committee,” said Jamiko Rose, CPS chief family and community engagement officer, a newly-created position. “People who aren’t in the central office are driving this and that’s what we need.”
But during the Q&A session that followed, attendees expressed doubt that community input would be taken into account by CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard or Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has seemingly drawn a line in the sand regarding the longer school day.
“I think of the committee as window dressing,” stated one CPS parent. Another termed the longer day a “wedge issue in Emanuel’s war on teachers.”
It’s no secret that the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) opposed extending the school day in 2011. “The initiative this year was always more about a slogan,” said Jesse Sharkey, CTU vice president. “You don’t make meaningful change when the school year’s already started and have that considered good educational policy.” Compensation was just one sticking point. “Ninety minutes extra for seven dollars a day was a problem,” said Sharkey, to much applause from the Coonley crowd.
While CTU has put forth its own recommendations for what extended day curriculum would look like in a school with ample resources (“where the mayor’s kids go,” joked one parent, another hit on the applause meter), it’s not clear that teachers are participating in the current process. “It’s sad that CTU is not sitting on the task force,” said O’Keefe. “You have to have teacher input.”
Sharkey countered that “we do have three rank and file teachers on the committee,” though CPS representatives have no record of those individuals, according to Craig Benes, CPS chief of elementary schools for Ravenswood-Ridge network. (As of press time, CTU had yet to respond to CSJ’s phone call for clarification.)
Politics aside, if the crowd at Coonley is an accurate gauge, CPS still has work to do to convince parents and teachers (many of whom are also CPS parents) that the longer school day is necessary system-wide or that the rollout will be well thought out and seamless.
“CPS has an underwhelming track record for planning and implementation,” said Claire Wapole, RYH steering committee. Concerns were raised about details that ranged from busing and the impact on Park District programs to CPS’ perpetual funding woes. Already faced with a yawning budget gap, many wondered how CPS would pay for music and art curriculum, to say nothing of additional music and art teachers, particularly with Illinois ranked dead last among states in terms of school funding, according to Wapole.
At high performing schools like Coonley, parents have stepped into the CPS breach, taking on fundraising, grant writing and volunteering, which isn’t necessarily sustainable system-wide. “One woman said to me, ‘I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a CPS parent. It’s too hard.’” Wapole recounted.
Ultimately, though, parents’ primary focus was the potential impact of a longer school day on their children. The RYH survey revealed concerns about: an increase in homework, less time for sports and after-school activities, keeping younger students engaged over the course of the extended day (“Our three-, four- and five-year-olds need a nap,” said one parent) and the additional burden placed on students commuting great distances to magnet schools. A parent from Bell Elementary stated: “My child has already lost family time, swimming, tap dancing and unstructured time.”
Still others argued for a more flexible approach. “If the issue is how do we bring up under-performing schools, if the issue is child care, don’t make it mandatory,” one parent proposed.
Benes, making his first acquaintance of RYH, did his best to assuage fears that parents will be steamrolled by CPS. The current Pioneer Program (the 13 schools that already have agreed to an extended day) is just that, a pilot, he noted, and not to be construed as a model for 2012, though best practices will certainly be reviewed.
“I can’t speak to the parameters,” he said, “but I do believe absolutely there will be a process for dialogue. I appreciate the passion from parents and the points I heard tonight are dead on. It’s hard work and people don’t always agree, but one thing I know Mr. Brizard has impressed on us is that we have to keep talking.”
One point RYH would like for CPS to hear loud and clear, summed up succinctly by Kwon: “Don’t wing it with our children.”