Students demand a break — every day

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and school recess are inalienable rights. 


That was essentially the message Lilly Nordby Wills brought to Georgia lawmakers this week, hoping to right what she sees as a grave injustice at her Paulding County school. 


“We get 15 minutes of recess, sometimes not even that,” the fourth-grader told a room full of state representatives at a legislative hearing Tuesday. Her teacher gives students extra work, and if they don’t complete it fast enough they lose even those meager moments of carefree time. She had to forfeit some of her recess last month, scribbling her work while the other kids played. “That made me sad,” she said. 


House Bill 273 makes her happy. 


It mandates recess in all Georgia elementary schools, from kindergarten through fifth grade. 


Recess has apparently been under pressure. As schools have been squeezed by ever increasing demands for high test scores, some have sacrificed down time for book time. Yet the science says recess is good for the brain, for attention spans and, consequently, for learning, said people who testified at the hearing under the Gold Dome. 


In a state with fewer than three months of cold weather, there’s no excuse for skipping outdoor exercise, Rep. Demetrius Douglas, D-Stockbridge, the main sponsor of the bill, told members of the House Education Subcommittee on Early Learning & K-12 Education. 


No one openly questioned the value of recess. Indeed, Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro, a member of the subcommittee, called diminishing recess “a matter of national security,” since, he noted, so many kids are growing up with diabetes and obesity and are ill-suited for military service. 


Olga Jarrett, a recently retired Georgia State University professor, testified that unstructured time in the school day is essential, giving kids an opportunity to burn off energy so they can focus. “Passing this bill will allow children to have their physical and emotional needs met, and benefit their learning,” she said. She lacked evidence that recess is a receding right, except for an informal poll of students in the education college who teach in schools; she found that as many as half had withheld recess on a fair weather day, some as punishment for misbehavior and others because they believed more time on a topic meant more learning. “That is misguided,” she said. 


Several children, and their parents, testified that recess is under assault. 


Pierce Mower, 9, of Atlanta, said kids “can’t learn right” without a break each day. “I see them sleeping in class and playing around at their desk,” he said. His mom, Marie Mower, said she unsuccessfully lobbied the Atlanta school board to mandate recess at all city schools after she tried to convince the principal in his school that three days of recess a week wasn’t enough. 


“She felt like she needed more instructional time because she was in an under-performing school and she needed to get the test scores up,” Marie Mower said in an interview. She got her son transferred to another school with more recess. 


Though lawmakers agreed recess was a good thing, some were wary of imposing a state mandate, saying this should be a local matter. 


That’s the position of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, too. Executive Director John Zauner testified that he endorses “the concept” of recess, but “I don’t endorse codifying” it as a mandate. Schools already have deadlines to teach students to read and do math, he said. “You’ve got to squeeze all this in.” He said his organization does not support the legislation as it is written. 


Rep. Brooks Coleman, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he also was bothered by the idea of a mandate, and he asked Douglas, the co-sponsor, to consult with Zauner and other education groups. On Thursday, the subcommittee unanimously approved the bill with a minor amendment: instead of requiring 30 minutes of recess per day, it now requires an average of 30 minutes. That change gives schools flexibility around scheduling for testing and other time-consuming activities. 


It now goes to the full House Education Commitee Monday, and has to make it to the House floor by Friday to get through the Senate and to the governor’s desk this year. 


Whatever happens, Gabby Wetmore, another Paulding County student who testified Tuesday, felt optimistic and empowered. She seemed to assume that mandatory recess was imminent, and she was already anticipating the next fight. 


“We need some trees, too,” she said, noting that the under-used playground at her school is sunbaked. 


“And also, we need a better playset.”

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