Gilbert Sun News staff

 

A new state law aimed at helping Arizona’s youngest school children reduce their stress in class apparently won’t have too big an impact on East Valley elementary pupils.

Area school districts for the most part appear to already meet – and even exceed in some cases – the minimum required by legislation mandating two recess periods a day for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Youngsters in half-day kindergarten must get at least one break.

The law allowed lunch break to be counted as one recess period if students are allowed to interact with others or engage in physical activity. It also does not specify a length for a recess period.

The legislation culminates a decade-long effort by some lawmakers and education advocates who have argued that letting kids get up and move around will help their academic performance.

Prior efforts were sidelined amid concerns that more time on the playground would mean less time for actual reading, writing and ’rithmetic. But Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, crafted the final version in a way to blunt some of their concerns.

Allen, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said she is convinced youngsters need a break.

“Our children are very stressed,” she told colleagues earlier this year, blaming home life and the breakdown of the family as well as increased pressure on schools for academic performance.

Allen said schools can’t have students under those kinds of stresses and then expect them to perform academically. “Recess is allowing kids to go out and let it go,” she said.

In Mesa, the state’s largest district, board policy requires that elementary schools provide at least 15 minutes of recess before or after lunch and recommends an additional 15 minutes in the morning or afternoon. Recesses typically range from 15 to 20 minutes depending on the school.

“Although an additional recess is not a requirement, the vast majority of our schools offer an additional 15-20 minutes of recess on top of the lunch recess,” said spokeswoman Heidi Hurst, adding that “periods of inactivity exceeding 55 minutes are discouraged.”

She noted that 47 Mesa schools have been designated “America’s Healthiest Schools” by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and that elementary teachers can include “brain breaks” into their classroom curriculum. Those are twice-daily five-minute physical activity breaks.

Gilbert Public Schools spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis said the law will cost 5 minutes of daily instruction in fourth and fifth grades because they only have a 15-minute lunch recess. K-2 grades in GPS have lunch and an additional morning or afternoon recess, while recess in third grade “depends on the school and their daily schedule.”

Chandler Unified schools provide K-3 with two recess periods currently, “so that will not be a difficult adjustment,” said Frank Narducci, district assistant for elementary education.

“The time provided to students to engage in unstructured yet monitored physical activity and social interaction with other pupils is healthy and for some children may help them focus when they are engaged in Core Instruction,” Narducci added, saying CUSD’s instructional time will not be affected.

“Teachers are very good at observing behaviors that promote learning,” he said. “When they see that students need a ‘brain break,’ they usually will engage them in a movement activity in the room or during transitions between content areas to give students an opportunity to socialize and move within the classroom.”

He also noted that “quality instructional strategies and methods include small group collaboration time” and that “students are not in desks for extended periods of time without movement or without engaging in creative discussions and Socratic groupings.”

Narducci also said that dropping a recess requirement for grades above fifth grade “made the bill a bit more realistic and attainable.”

Kyrene School District also said the bill would not affect all but two of its schools, which provide a dual-language curriculum that may need to be adjusted.

The law spells out that schools need not extend the school day to make up for the lost class time.

That is significant as state law requires students in grades 1 through 3 to have at least 712 hours of instruction a year to be counted when the Department of Education divides up financial aid. That’s four hours a day over the normal 180-day school year.

The measure drew some opposition before its approval by the State Legislature.

Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, told lawmakers they should leave these decisions to locally elected school boards, saying they are looking out for their students.

“School districts do not make purposeful decisions that harm children,” Kotterman said.

Allen, however, cited testimony from parents who said they have approached both school superintendents and school boards seeking multiple recess periods, only to have their requests spurned. The senator said that’s why legislators needed to intercede.

It wasn’t just parents urging lawmakers to mandate the dual recess periods.

“There’s actually empirical evidence that this is effective in improving academic achievement and attention,” testified former state Health Director Will Humble, now working with the Arizona Public Health Association.

And Scott Turner, founder of the newly formed Healthy Futures U.S. program, told lawmakers that the increased focus on academic performance at the expense of free time has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of children with diabetes.