How deep are budget cuts at Detroit schools? Some can’t afford recess.

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. (Photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

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, Bridge Magazine’s reporting partner.

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 said. 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 students to use their outside voices while exploring the physical world with peer.

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.

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, said 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 said 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 nonprofit that works to give students more access to playtime. She said 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.

Originally published March 8 by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

About the Detroit Journalism Cooperative

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.

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Comments

Mike Radke
Tue, 07/10/2018 - 10:48am

The Children of Detroit and specifically the DPSCD have been denied fundamental components of a basic education for 20+ years -- that's generations of elementary school children! Recess is not a frill, it is a necessity. The work of childhood is play. That's how children learn basic skills including how to navigate their environment, develop social-emotional skills and problem-solving. But recess is also essential for learning academic knowledge and skills like reading, mathematics and advanced content as it helps children burn off energy so they can attend and it gives them opportunities to apply academics to their lives.
Help DPSCD give children the basic resources they need to succeed, especially teachers, materials and time for recess.

Drew Kups
Wed, 07/11/2018 - 12:38pm

Please join us July 20-22 in Detroit as we blow glass to raise cash in celebration on the return of art programming in local middle and elementary schools. Last year we donated 100k with a goal of 125k this year. Over 100 live glass demos,140 musicians and djs, art vendors, food trucks, games, and more. All details at>>
Www.themichiganglassproject.com

Barry Visel
Mon, 07/30/2018 - 1:53pm

Seems like when I was in school, the same people teaching in the classroom are the people monitoring our recess. How can that be a budget issue? Am I missing something here? Are there not classroom parent volunteers anymore that could assist with recess if the teachers can’t do it?