Prioritizing Health & Wellness in Discussions of a Longer School Day

September 13, 2011

by Guillermo Gomez, Vice President of Urban Affairs

In my years working with parents in Chicago Public Schools to advocate for wellness in schools — for simple but important changes such as bringing back recess — one of the most common concerns we hear is “there's just not enough time.” With one of the shortest school days in the nation, Chicago school leaders are forced to make tough decisions about how to spend every minute kids are in school. And unfortunately, this means that health and wellness initiatives such as recess and nutrition education can get squeezed out.

We’ve worked with schools to find creative ways to make wellness part of the day, but the reality is that without a longer school day, schools will continue to struggle to make time for all the things that matter, including physical activity and lessons about wellness.

The movement toward a longer school day has made headlines in recent weeks, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard expressing their strong support for a new schedule that would include 90 minutes a day more than the current schedule. CPS leaders are encouraging schools to switch to the new schedule now and are planning for all schools to transition to the new schedule for the 2012-13 school year.

CPS has formed a Community Advisory Committee focused on the longer school day. I was honored to be invited to serve on this committee and was encouraged by the discussion at our first meeting last week.

What stood out to me most at the meeting was that the discussion didn’t focus on how to parse an additional 90 minutes; rather, we talked about a new vision for education, one that better equips students to succeed in school and beyond. This includes recess and adequate lunch periods for students as well as enrichment opportunities including physical education, art and music.

My perspective is that these changes will have an impact far beyond their face value. Recess, for example, does more than give children a chance to be active (which is already incredibly valuable in light of the obesity epidemic); it also helps them focus when they get back to the classroom. Having enough time to eat lunch means that students have a better chance of returning to class with the energy they need to learn. And we can’t forget that students form lifelong habits — good or bad — in school. Structuring the school day to encourage healthy eating and physical activity will help students develop healthy habits that will stay with them for life.

At our first advisory committee meeting, we began by reviewing a snapshot of CPS statistics. One number stood out to me: 57 percent of high school students graduate. This means that 43 percent of students do not. This is a shocking number that to me sends a clear message about the need to honestly re-think education in our city. I am glad that by taking steps to a longer school day and making wellness a priority in the school day dialogue, we are beginning to do just that.

Plus! Guillermo is featured in a news report on the move to a longer school day on ABC-7: