Education

Miami students get more play time for the new school year

Eric Pedrosa, 6, zooms down the slide during recess at North Beach Elementary's Jennifer Beth Turken Playground in March at the Miami Beach school. Eric and fellow second-graders in Jessica Jiminez's class have two 20-minute recesses per week and a 30-minute PE class Monday through Friday.
Eric Pedrosa, 6, zooms down the slide during recess at North Beach Elementary's Jennifer Beth Turken Playground in March at the Miami Beach school. Eric and fellow second-graders in Jessica Jiminez's class have two 20-minute recesses per week and a 30-minute PE class Monday through Friday. mhalper@miamiherald.com

Kids in Miami-Dade will get some extra play time when they go back to school on Monday.

The district has added 15 minutes a week of recess for preschool, kindergarten and elementary school students, giving children a total of one hour a week of unstructured play time.

This means students will be able to run around outside every day except Wednesday, when school ends early. Principals and teachers will also have the option of giving students 15 to 20 minute "brain breaks" on days when recess is not scheduled.

The new policy comes after persistent complaints from parents that their children are not getting enough breaks from class. A group of moms in Miami-Dade has been advocating for 20 minutes of free play every day and for recess that is built into the school schedule.

“I believe that all the academic goals can be gained not only through formal organized goals through the curriculum, but also through spontaneous play,” said Maria Pardo, a Miami-Dade mom and recess advocate. “I think that children need to be able to improvise, to know what to do with their own time beyond instruction.”

School administrators, on the other hand, have argued that it's tough to squeeze more recess into the school day and still fit in enough instructional time to meet the tougher learning standards in today's classrooms, including preparing students for high-stakes testing.

At a press conference following Miami-Dade's annual Opening of Schools event on Aug. 16, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho addressed concerns about play time and reiterated the district's new recess policy.

Carvalho stressed that the district believes recess is "important", but cautioned that too much play time cuts into classes. "We have to be careful about the impact," he said of the expanded recess policy.

To evaluate whether additional breaks are still needed, Miami-Dade is also trying out a pilot program of 20-minute daily recesses in 11 schools this year. The district plans to evaluate the impact the extra breaks have on students to inform future policies.

Prior to the added recess time, which was initially announced at a June 22 School Board meeting, children from preschool through 5th grade got a total of 40 to 45 minutes of recess a week, split up over two to three days.

Pardo said that although the added play time is a “step forward,” she is concerned that not all teachers will take advantage of the optional “brain breaks” allowed under the new policy. “There is a conflict of expectations and when you give teachers the choice, they might prioritize doing more work so [students] do better on the standardized exams,” she said. “There will always be this incentive to keep them in class.”

In addition to recess, Carvalho also spoke about what the district is doing to prevent the spread of Zika and about how Miami-Dade fared under the state’s new school grading system. The superintedent said 33 percent of Miami-Dade schools received an A rating, which is determined by student performance on state tests, graduation rates and other factors, compared to 23 percent of schools statewide. However, he acknowledged that some Miami-Dade high schools saw their grades go down this year.

"By design the state Department of Education increased the accountability requirements, particularly for senior high schools. So it's not that schools are performing any lower, the standard was elevated,” he said. “To become an A or a B school this year was much tougher than in previous years.”

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