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Many low-income, minority students get little or no recess

After eating corn dogs or barbecue for lunch, Anitha McKenzie's third-grade students head straight to the computer lab to practice their math.

Her students don't get recess at Hartley Elementary, an inner-city, majority-black school in Macon that backs up to a public housing neighborhood.

One of the reasons is that Hartley has no swing sets or slides. There's just an old basketball court that's missing its goals. The terrain is uneven, with a 10-foot embankment behind the building.

But another reason Hartley has no recess is that the elementary school is trying to get students passing grade-level reading and math tests to meet goals under the No Child Left Behind law. The school didn't make it this past school year, and trying to catch up cuts in to play time.

"A lot of times in areas like this, so much emphasis is placed on testing, testing, testing," McKenzie said. "You want your children to be able to compete, and we're a test-driven society."

A majority of children in Bibb, Houston and Peach counties get from 15 to 30 minutes of recess most days, but there are students in schools who get much less recess time - or none at all, a Telegraph survey shows.

Among Bibb's 26 elementary schools, nine of them, or about 35 percent, don't have recess. All nine schools are in the city, with high poverty rates and majority-black student populations.

"Times are different," said Jacqueline Walden, a principal at Riley Elementary, another school that doesn't have recess. "There is not enough time in the day to do everything we need to do. If we have physical education, it's sufficient."

Cutting recess time is a growing trend across the country, but some education experts say that's a mistake. Having an outlet such as recess helps students focus in the classroom, they say, and it helps combat childhood obesity rates, which have skyrocketed since 1980.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006.

WHAT THE NUMBERS SHOW

Another six Bibb elementary schools said they give 10-minute breaks or recess most days, the Telegraph's survey showed. These schools are also low-income and majority black.

There's a difference of opinion, of course, about whether schools should have unstructured recess time.

"You're looking at children who are from single homes, working parents or parents who are kids themselves," said Janecia Miller, a King-Danforth Elementary School parent and youth correctional officer. "Over therethey focus on education every day. A lot of these kids don't have that focus (at home.) This is the only exposure they have to learn - here."

Beverly Woolfolk, who has a third-grader at King-Danforth, said she didn't realize her son wasn't getting recess.

Her son Nicolas gets physical education Mondays and five-minute breaks some days.

"They should all have recess," Woolfolk said. "They're cooped up in that building all day."

The 11 Bibb schools that offer more recess time, from 15 to 30 minutes most days, generally made No Child Left Behind goals this past spring, and they aren't considered low-income. Also, they are mostly schools that are majority white or more diverse.

Porter Elementary School in south Bibb County, for example, allots students about 20 minutes of recess each day, principal Russ Chesser said.

"Kids have so much energy and they have no relief," Chesser said. "They need an opportunity to unwind to stay focused in the classroom and not fidget around."

Also, his school doesn't have as many barriers. It has an active Parent Teacher Organization that raised money for new playground equipment, and the school has made Adequate Yearly Progress for seven years.

Bibb County's central administrative office requires only that recess time is less than 30 minutes, and that there's at least one teacher to supervise every 40 students, said Diana Rodgers, Bibb's deputy superintendent for teaching and learning.

It's left up to each school to decide recess times.

"We put a lot of faith in principals and leadership teams and school councils," she said. "Every population is a little bit different, and they have to look at what works best for them. A lot depends on schedules, who they have to supervise. ... A lot felt P.E. was sufficient."

Peach County school officials allot a uniform 15 minutes of daily recess to both Fort Valley and Byron elementary school students. Unlike Bibb and Houston, they also allow middle school students 10 minutes of recess.

"There is medical evidence that the exercise itself stimulates serotonin in the brain, which creates a sense of general well-being and allows students to focus more readily," said Peach County Schools Superintendent Susan Clark.

All 23 Houston County elementary schools schedule 15 to 20 minutes of daily recess for kindergarten through fifth-grade students.

Seven schools, however, give students five fewer minutes of recess time. Of those, six are low-income schools and five of them are majority black. Of schools with more recess time, 13 of 16 are majority white, and nine of the 16 are not considered low-income schools.

"I think it comes down to looking at their schedule and getting everything in," said Beth McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Houston County school system.



WHAT'S THE NORM?

A Center for Public Education report released this past summer says more and more schools have chipped away at school recess time across the country.

The report is based on two federal studies showing that 90 percent of elementary schools surveyed regularly schedule 24 to 30 minutes of recess each day. The surveys were compiled by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006.

After No Child Left Behind testing and accountability measures were put into place, about 20 percent of schools in the survey reported that they cut recess times to spend more time in class studying English and math.

"Recess is alive and well out there. However, many schools are shaving minutes out of recess," said Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education.

More alarming, Barth said, is that children who attend the highest poverty, highest minority schools are the least likely to get recess at all, the report found.

When looking just at first-graders, about 14 percent of high minority elementary schools and 18 percent of high poverty schools don't schedule recess for that grade level. That compares to just 2 percent of low-minority elementary schools and just 4 percent of schools with lower poverty rates, the report found.

The most common reasons cited were curriculum demands, no playgrounds, lack of staffing or safety concerns, Barth said.

"There exists a recess gap," she said. "That is something that really gets our attention."

Schools, communities and parents need to work together to juggle both academics and activity, said Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the House Education Committee.

"I think it's children need extra help, and schools are trying to find every extra minute they can," he said. "Schools can't do it all."

The state requires that elementary school students get 90 hours of health and physical education a year, which could be 30 minutes a day or 2 hours a week. In Bibb and Houston, elementary students get P.E. two or three times each week.

Brenda Greene, director of school health programs for the National School Boards Association, says schools should give both recess and physical education classes as a package. Elementary students should get 30 to 60 minutes daily, she said.

Physical education keeps students active in a much more planned, skill-based program, but unstructured recess is an opportunity to socialize, plan and use imagination while being active.

"Those are things that can happen on the playground," she said.

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4231.

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