Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis seem to have found some common ground in CPS' push to extend the school day.
Brizard and Lewis were at odds over Mayor Rahm Emanuel's accelerated push to tack on 90 minutes to the school day for elementary students. The longer school day initiative, passed this spring, was part of an education reform bill.
The extra school time was to take effect next school year. But both Emanuel and Brizard offered inducements for schools willing to implement the extended school day this academic year.
The union blasted the move as a violation of their union contract, a decision upheld by the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board. A last-minute deal, however, ended the extended school day push for this school year. In return, CTU dropped a complaint filed with Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office.
But Brizard, in an editorial board meeting with Austin Weekly News and the Chicago Journal last Thursday, announced that Lewis will be working - albeit indirectly - with a committee Brizard has set up a to shape extended-day curriculums.
Lewis, he said, will not be joining any committees, but she agreed that there should be a "structure to engage the CTU" in planning the longer day for next year.
In a statement, Lewis said CTU has always been willing to work with the CPS "on how to best use extended instructional time." Lewis said CTU has been working on its version of a better school day plan and will share its research with CPS. Lewis contends that the moniker "longer school day" is "a political slogan and not an education plan."
"We believe our students deserve better school days, one that includes a rich, broad curriculum, physical education, smaller class sizes, adequate facilities ... and qualified teachers in every classroom," the statement said.
The 13 schools already implementing the longer day will be used as pilots to see what works and what didn't. So far, Brizard said, things have been going "better than expected," but he expressed some worry that there were no "hiccups" in implementing the longer day.
"We expected hiccups and those hiccups would inform our work for next year," he said. "So in some ways I'm actually a little worried, because I haven't had enough hiccups to train us to launch full-scale next year."
One take-away is the different ways schools have used those extra minutes. At Skinner North, 640 W. Scott St., the school focuses on enrichment activities while Disney II, 3815 N. Kedvale, focuses on literacy and science.
Brizard said these schools listened to parents and use student data to determine where to put the extra time. That leeway, he contends, is part of giving principals some autonomy to run their schools as they see fit. But Brizard noted there are some "non-negotiables," including recess.
"You want teachers and principals to have control on how they allocate the time based on students' needs," he said.
Recess, he explained is key to a child's educational development. Besides the physical health-and-wellness piece, students learn teamwork and play "creates a sense of belonging," Brizard said.
"There is so much learning in play," he said, noting that recess is rarely included in schools' curriculum.
When asked why, Brizard said recess is the first to get cut, along with art and music, when districts are in a budget crunch. It's time, he said, for CPS to revisit that long-forgotten activity.
Brizard too wants a diverse, extended-day curriculum. He said he fears that struggling schools will only focus on math and literacy.
"I don't want all my rich schools with arts and music and all my poor schools with no arts and music," he said. "There is a great awareness that we cannot be lopsided in how we do this."
Brizard plans to tweak the high school curriculum also. Their day will be lengthened an extra 36 minutes. The plan is to eliminate homeroom, a structure that Brizard said "makes no sense." He wants to reclaim that time for instruction.
"We have to be obsessive about the use of the time as well," Brizard added, admitting he is not a fan of CPS' two-track system.
Under the system, students in Track E started school a full four weeks ahead of regular kids in Track R. He said the two-track system was created to prevent "summer loss" or the loss of academic learning from the previous year. Brizard said data shows little evidence of that.
Part of the discussion to change the academic calendar proposes going back to a one-track system where all students start and end school at the same time. He noted the school year is too short and that Track R has not had a full week of class since Sept. 6.
"We close to give out reports cards," he said. "Ultimately, I think we need to rethink the entire school year and school day completely, but we are not there yet."