Some Wichita teachers say a new program aimed at making kindergartners better readers could mean more time in classrooms and less on playgrounds for the district's youngest students.
A proposed schedule e-mailed to kindergarten teachers outlines how the new Read Well curriculum, approved by school leaders in June, will translate to an average school day.
The schedule requires nearly three hours of literacy, including alphabet poems or songs, read-aloud activities, self-directed reading, writing, small-group rotations and intensive instruction.
It also requires 1 1/2 hours of math, 15 minutes of "social exploration and development" such as blocks or sand table play, and 45 minutes of special classes such as art, music and P.E.
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The only recess listed on the schedule is 20 minutes at lunch.
A note at the bottom of the schedule says: "We encourage students to be active; therefore, classroom teachers have the flexibility to take brain breaks of varying lengths (up to 15 min/day) when appropriate."
One Wichita kindergarten teacher said she was "a little appalled" at the schedule, which she said looks too stressful for most 5- and 6-year-olds.
"They say we can take breaks, but I look at this schedule and think, 'When?' " said the veteran teacher, who asked not to be named because she wasn't authorized by district officials to talk about the proposal.
"If we do everything we're supposed to do, there's very little time — no time, really — to get them outside to play and run around."
District officials said the new Read Well curriculum marks a more intensive approach to early literacy. They adopted it in hopes of boosting kindergartners' reading skills and, consequently, raising state test scores in third grade and beyond.
But "there is no change to the basic schedule and no change to recess time" for kindergartners, said Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools.
"It's the same thing that has been in place for years," Thompson said. "We have standards and indicators given to us by the state Department of Education, and we follow those standards."
Kindergarten used to be mostly about play — singing songs, painting on easels, eating snacks, being read to, learning to share. But that changed in Wichita even before the district moved from half-day to full-day kindergarten for all students.
Now kindergarten teachers screen students several times a year to measure how well they recognize letters, words or letter sounds, as well as numbers and basic math concepts. Students don't take state assessment tests until third grade, but they're tested long before that, and scores are shared with parents and administrators. In Wichita, as elsewhere, kindergarten is hard work.
Even so, recess is encouraged and expected, said Thompson, the assistant superintendent.
"The teacher has the flexibility, based on their activities on any given day, to take a break and schedule that whenever it works best for them and their students," she said.
Brain breaks vs. recess
About five years ago, Wichita schools implemented a standard schedule that gives most instruction time to reading and math — the subjects used to measure a district's progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As part of the change, former superintendent Winston Brooks sent a directive to elementary schools telling them to no longer schedule regular morning or afternoon recess for kids.
Many teachers and parents interpreted it as a move to cut recess for more class instruction time.
Brooks later clarified his message with another directive — now sent annually to principals and teachers — reaffirming that "physical activity is an important part of the school day."
While recess remains unscheduled, the guideline states that "each student have a minimum of 15 minutes of physical activity per day above and beyond P.E. and lunch recess. It is up to each building to decide how and when to provide that time."
Larry Landwehr, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said the 2006 change amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell" recess policy.
"Whenever we argued about the necessity of recess, we were told it does not say anywhere that they can't have recess," Landwehr said.
"It's, 'Take it if you need it. Just don't write in your lesson plan that at 10 a.m. you're going outside for recess.'... They see it more as little brain breaks here and there."
But Landwehr said — and most educators agree — that so-called brain breaks are not the same as old-fashioned outdoor recess.
Brain breaks are teacher-led activities, usually in the classroom, intended to get kids out of their seats and moving. A teacher might turn on music, for instance, and instruct students to get up and dance until the music stops. She may have students toss around a beach ball, play freeze tag or touch their toes.
The average brain break is two to five minutes, Landwehr said. Taking a kindergarten class outside for recess? That can take five minutes just to line everyone up.
"As standards increase, the schedules get more rigid even for very young students," he said. "But we know that these kids need breaks. They need to go out and exercise and get some fresh air. And oh my gosh, that might even help the obesity problem."
Landwehr added that 35 minutes of recess time during a seven-hour school day isn't much, especially for young kids.
Wichita isn't the only district struggling to balance higher academic standards with children's need for fresh air and free time.
A recent survey by the Right to Recess campaign estimated that more than 40 percent of elementary schools have eliminated or cut back on recess over the past decade. Another survey by the National PTA showed that nine out of 10 teachers say recess is an important part of the school day and is crucial to a child's social and emotional development.
The Wichita kindergarten teacher, who also has children of her own, said youngsters need time outside to run and play. Judging from the yawns and sleepy eyes she notices in her kindergarten class after lunch, she said, some still need nap time.
"Once you start school it's all about reading and math, and recess is kind of frowned upon," she said.
Teachers feel pressured to fill every minute of the day with instruction, she said. Even brain breaks are supposed to be tied to state academic standards.
"If you want to play, 'Duck Duck Goose,' you'd better be adding up the ducks," she said. "If they're building something with blocks, you better find a way to measure it or count them or something."
The teacher said she hopes her school's principal clarifies the new schedule in coming weeks and emphasizes that recess is still a priority.
"I just feel like the kids never really get a break," she said. "Everyone needs a break, especially kids."