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New school strategy puts recess before lunch

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
January 16, 2012
— Recess at Wilson Elementary School is just what you'd expect: Fourth-graders climbing, jumping, running and generally having a good time on an unseasonably warm January morning.

Meanwhile, supervisors keep a close eye.


"Keep your coats on! It's chilly out here, guys," calls out Susan LeFave, who is in her seventh year as an aide at Wilson.


But something is different—so different in fact, that the principal thinks it could lead to higher ratings on the annual state tests in reading and math.


This recess comes before lunch, not the traditional after-lunch time slot.


That may sound too simple to make a difference, but Principal Kim Peerenboom is thrilled with what she's seeing.


"Students no longer rush through lunch to get to recess," Peerenboom wrote in an email. "Students no longer (go without eating) in an effort to avoid tummy aches on the playground later. Nurse visits are down, as students don't get sick on the playground after lunch … Students don't want to miss out on eating lunch with their friends in the cafeteria for misbehaving on the playground."


Numbers of playground discipline referrals have plummeted this year, the second year of the change.


Peerenboom said that when kids do misbehave on the playground, staff can deal with the problems at lunch instead of during class.


"A typical behavior issue takes between 15 and 20 minutes to process," Peerenboom said. "By the time lunch is over, the problem has been solved and addressed, and students are back into a learning environment."


The school has gained back 53 hours of instructional and interaction time with students since the change, Peerenboom calculates. She believes that difference will show up on state tests. In fact, she believes it already has.


Scores on the 2010 tests shot up in third- and fifth-grade reading and fifth-grade math, Peerenboom said.


"This is significant, as each of these grade levels had reading and/or math instruction after recess and lunch," the principal said.


Peerenboom is hoping for more of the same for the 2011 tests.


"I am excited to see what our test scores will look like this spring," she said of the tests students took last fall.


LeFave's partner in playground supervision, Laurie Worple, said it makes sense that kids who have been sitting all morning would need a release.


"You could see they needed to get out—too antsy in the lunchroom. They were in too much of a hurry to get outside," Worple said of the years when recess came after lunch.


Fourth-graders quizzed about the change gave mixed reviews.


"If you have lunch first, and you go outside, and you go on the tire swing, you'll get sick," said Dylan Solares, who said he prefers recess first.


"If you eat and you don't digest, you'll probably vomit," agreed Jorden Renee Showers.


Some seemed oblivious to the change.


"We don't care," said Edward Oeun.


"I want both (before and after lunch)," said Brian Wille.


Jackson, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Van Buren elementary schools also put recess first, at least for some of their grades.


"It's not a magic bullet, but it's a piece that helps," said Jefferson Principal Kurt Krueger.


"When it's time to go out, they want to go. They want to play outside," Krueger said. "They need to release and expend that energy. And when it's time to go in, they're ready to go because now they're hungry, so they line up quicker.


Krueger also sees instructional time increasing because kids return to class calmed down by lunch, not revved up and bringing in playground problems to their classrooms.


They're more ready to learn, he said.


Krueger said a new discipline program, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, also is contributing to the results.


Roosevelt Principal Stacy Kelley said first, second and fifth grades do recess first, as the staffs in those grades decided it would be best for those particular students.


Kids don't rush through lunch to go outside, and discipline problems are down, Kelley said.


Kelley suggested recess-first is best used when a particular class is more rambunctious at that time of day and needs the calming effects of recess.


"It's never one-size-fits-all," Kelley said. "It's a good option for teachers when they know the kids and know the needs of the students. It's not a cure-all."



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