In response to parent concerns about cutting the time for recess at Komarek School District 94 in North Riverside, Superintendent Neil Pellicci on Sept. 9 outlined the reasons at a “parent university” session to about 50 parents and 15 teachers.

This year the traditional hour-long lunch period at Komarek was cut to 30 minutes. Under the old system, Komarek students had 30 minutes for lunch and 30 minutes for recess. Now they have 15 minutes for lunch and just 15 minutes for recess.

The half hour saved is being used for a 30-minute enrichment period during which students will work on reading, writing and math. The length of the school day remains the same.

Pellicci said that the hour-long lunch period was an anachronism, dating back to the days when kids went home for lunch.

“We’ve always felt, at least the administration has felt, that the hour was unnecessary,” Pellicci said. “It went back to a time when we had open campus at one time, and we have the hot lunch program and the students stay here now, and we felt the half hour was enough.”

Pellicci said that the change was made because the ever-increasing standards of the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) made it essential to increase time spent on core subjects.

“This is kind of one of the main things that drove this decision,” Pellicci said.

Although Komarek has always met the adequate yearly progress standards of NCLB, the percentage of students who must meet or exceed state standards increases every year under the law.

In recent years, Komarek students have spent less time on math, reading and science than state averages, according to Pellicci. For example Komarek third-graders spent 19 fewer minutes a day on math than the state average, according to Pellicci.

But many parents and kids are not happy about the reduction in recess, saying that kids need play time and that lunch now is too rushed.

“The studies show that children’s social, emotional development is as important, if not more important, than all other development,” said Donna Landa, the parent of a Komarek eighth-grader. “And you can’t be ready to take in more information until you’ve had a break. Eating lunch in 15 minutes? I don’t thing that’s healthy.”

Pellicci and Komarek Principal Thomas Criscione said that while some studies indicate that recess is important, other studies show that it is not so important.

“There is research on both sides,” Criscione said.

Pellicci said that while he recognizes the value of recess, it was necessary to increase instructional time for students.

“You have to have sit-in-the-seat time, with the teacher [present], to have student learning,” Pellicci said. “I’m a big proponent of recess, but I’m also a proponent of a successful school.”

Teachers can take their classes out for additional recess with the approval of Criscione.

Komarek’s new policy seems to be roughly in line with other area schools. At Brook Park School in LaGrange Park, daily recess is between about 10 and 15 minutes, said Principal Mike Sorensen.

In Riverside District 96 elementary schools students get 20 to 25 minutes for recess and another 25 minutes for lunch. At both Hauser Junior High and S.E. Gross Middle School, students have to fit lunch and recess into a half hour.

Some Komarek parents were critical of the way the schedule change was introduced without input from parents.

Komarek parent Ricardo Rivera said that he would have preferred that the school day be lengthened a half hour and recess and lunch left alone if more instructional time was needed.

But lengthening the school day was not possible, because the teachers union at Komarek, which agreed to reduce their lunch time by a half hour, was not willing to agree to a longer school day school, board members said.

“I think it was wrong, the fact that they didn’t ask the parents first,” Rivera said.

But there was not enough time to inform parents of the proposed change, because the school board did not approve the new contract with the teachers that allowed for the change until Aug. 12.

“It was done on the sly, because it was a confidential negotiation,” said District 94 school board member Chris Waas in responding to a question from a parent.

Not surprisingly Komarek students do not seem thrilled by the reduction in recess time.

“I think it’s bogus,” said Arielle Piesen, a Komarek seventh grader.

Eighth-grader Daniel Gutierrez doesn’t think much of the change either.

“We don’t have time to share with friends,” Gutierrez said.

The first few days of the new schedule were difficult in the crowded lunchroom, but things are working more smoothly every day, Pellicci said.

“Wednesday was a disaster lining up the primary kids, but everyday we’re getting better with that,” Pellicci said.

A new committee, which will include parent members, is being formed and will reevaluate the policy in January.

“I’m not closing the door on anything,” Pellicci said.