Currently in Chicago, there is a debate raging about Mayor Emanuel’s plan to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes. I have watched some nasty comments be slung over the airways and in print for some weeks now. The Mayor and CPS CEO, Jean Claude Brizard, have framed the debate to say that “courageous teachers” will vote to lengthen the day, regardless of compensation, because “it’s the right thing to do” while the Chicago Teacher’s Union is portrayed as a bunch whining obstructionists.
So I decided to take the debate to a group this new plan would affect directly: the students. I teach in a psychiatric hospital on a child and adolescent inpatient unit. My job allows me the unique ability to interact with kids from all over the city and surrounding suburbs. When I asked a group of about 15 students ages 13-17, about the plan, I got some very interesting responses. Here is a sample (I have not changed any of the student’s spelling or grammar mistakes):
“I do not think the Chicago Public Schools should lengthen the school day…because the school principle laded off alot of teachers because they couldnt afford to pay them but 1 hr and 30 minutes more how are they going to do it?” --8th grade CPS female student
“No the plan of extend the school is a bad Idea because no child wants to stay more longer and even thought Just to keep teenage/childrens safe to 4:00pm Still when they get out from school they still get killed. “ --7th grade CPS female student
“I don’t go to school so it doesn’t matter to me” --17 year old male former CPS student (He was held back TWICE, once in the 3rd and then again in the 4th grade. He thought he was “too dumb” for school, had joined a gang, now was hospitalized for aggressive behavior at home. Yet another kid pushed out of a system which discriminates against the low achievers.)
“No, I do not think the plan to extend the school day is a good idea because…at 2:45 students are ready to go home and are just thinking about plans for after school. An extra 90 minutes students won’t have their full attention on school work anymore.” --8th grade female suburban student
Only one student was in favor of the change, and his response is interesting because he drew from his experience in a charter school: “Most charter schools such as Noble charter go from 8:00 – 3:55 which a extra hour these stundts often excel in both reading and math and they usually go to a great college” –17 year old male CPS student
Interestingly enough, since this student specifically cited charter schools as an example of how the longer days helps academic achievement, I asked him if he currently went to a charter school. His response was “I did in 9th grade, but I was told to leave because of my emotional problems.” Wow. Yet another example of kids being “pushed out” of charters. Seriously, this refrain is so common among the kids I work with, it’s really starting to upset me.
The kids got into a lively debate about this issue as I pushed them by saying “but don’t Chicago students need to do better in school?” Their response was 1) that until teachers had better control of the classes, more time doesn’t matter (quality over quantity!) 2) School is too boring already and they are sick of the “multiple choice” work (a.k.a. test prep) and 3) a very big worry among my students was the possible later release time and the threat of violence. They were very concerned about having to walk by certain corners or parks after dark.
They also agreed that they needed to “work harder” in school, but most of the kids already hated school so much, the extra time “makes me want to give up.”
I really believe we have to look at what the actual experience of school is like for kids. Running little militaristic schools which focus on compliance, obedience, and getting the right answer turn kids off to learning. One boy described school as a “Chinese finger trap” saying "the harder the adults push us, they more we resist".
The mayor and Brizard are not listening to the people whom these changes will affect the most. We need to have a serious discussion about the real impact of this debate. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some merit to having more time in the classroom, but the teachers’ and students’ concerns are important. We need a voice in the conversation too.