In Roland Park, home to one of Baltimore's highest-performing public schools, dozens of parents are at odds with administrators over an academic perk: recess for middle-schoolers.
In a dispute that mirrors the nationwide debate over students' participation in physical activity, the parents want sixth- through eighth-grade students to have some relief from Roland Park Elementary/Middle School's rigorous academic regimen of 70-minute classes and restricted social time. They say it's an essential part of their children's education.
"I expect teachers to approach kids with a holistic perspective, not just pouring information into their brains," said Sandy Summers, the parent of a seventh-grader and one of about 80 parents advocating for recess at Roland Park.
"If they have their bony little butts glued to a chair for 70 minutes in a row, that's like punishment, it's cruel," said Summers, a public health nurse. "We're not sending our kids to college — they're in middle school — they deserve rest, relaxation, time with their friends, exercise."
But the parents' wishes are running up against the school's budget and scheduling realities, other parents and administrators say.
"I don't know of any parent, teacher or administrator that doesn't support exercise, recess breaks, for kids," said school board Commissioner Bob Heck, who also is a Roland Park parent. "The issue is schedule, staffing and safety — and at the end of the day, the academics always come first in a school."
At the city's Hampstead Hill Academy, a public charter school that offers middle-school recess, Principal Matt Hornbeck said, "Recess, when it's done right, actually helps focus kids on learning. It can be a terrific, less structured time for students to develop and bond with each other."
But Hornbeck said he has noticed that without adequate supervision, middle school recess can lead to problem behavior. Funding and support are also essential, he said.
Education experts say the debate at Roland Park is being repeated across the country, particularly in campaigns to combat the rise in childhood obesity and other medical problems exacerbated by a lack of physical activity.
"There's tremendous advocacy across the nation for children to be more physically active during the school day," said Melinda Bossenmeyer, president and founder of Peaceful Playgrounds, a California-based organization that serves as a national resource for recess models. "Research breaking in the last five years indicates that [for] anyone who is more physically active, it warms up the brain, helps the brain to grow, so there's more of a push toward getting kids to be more physically active in school, not only for their health but to do better academically."
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report recommending that all students have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every school day.
The report followed a CDC finding last year that recess has a positive impact on school adjustment and classroom behavior. The CDC also found positive associations between recess and indicators of cognitive skills, attitudes and academic behavior.
Although recess is standard in most elementary grades, it's less common in middle school — not just in Baltimore, but also in neighboring counties. Unlike physical education, recess is not state-mandated or regulated.
Sixty percent of city schools — a total of 53 — with middle grades offer recess, while 86 percent of elementary schools do. Neither Baltimore County nor Anne Arundel County offers middle-school recess, though they have robust physical education programs and shorter classes. Howard County offers about 15 minutes of recess a day for all middle-schoolers.
Bossenmeyer said that in combating the repercussions of a lack of physical activity, schools are increasingly looked to for leadership, because that's where children spend most of their time.
"That's the easiest, strategically, public health approach," she said. "But it's very difficult because schools may be [limited] in their parameters."
In the city, where principals have autonomy to form their own class schedules, school models and budgets, recess can conflict with academic priorities and resources.
The group of Roland Park parents has asked the school's administration to shave five minutes from each of the 70-minute classes, carving out 25 minutes of recess per day. At a meeting last week, school officials said the proposal raised major scheduling and staffing concerns. They said that while parents have offered to volunteer as monitors, safety is an issue, and the recess would require trained supervisors.
Roland Park Principal Carolyn Cole said she is open to the idea of recess for the 800 middle-schoolers — the school has one of the city's largest student bodies — during lunch periods. But restructuring the school day around a 25-minute window would be disruptive, she said.
"I think students all over the country need a break," Cole said. "But it could create a domino effect throughout the building, and we are proud of the climate in our building. We have sort of a perfect model, and each grade has a model that works for them."
Teachers would struggle to rearrange their schedules, she said, and resources are more limited this year. The school's budget was cut by $500,000, resulting in the loss of three recess monitors for elementary students. Cole and staff fill in the gaps.
The school's $8 million budget does, however, include additional sports teams this year, theater, band, three art teachers, vocal music classes, foreign language, a new weight room and two field trips a semester. She said that teachers in all grades are encouraged to come up with ways to have students moving about in classrooms at least eight to 10 minutes a couple of times a week.
"We work to improve whatever you can when it comes to children with innovative ideas," Cole said.
City school officials said they don't dictate to principals how to structure decompression time for students.
"What we do say is schools should take into account what the research says about the needs of students for physical activity and different kinds of social interaction," said Sonja Brookins Santelises, chief academic officer for the school system. "And that should be reflected in their school program as well as their school schedule."
Such flexibility has inspired schools to develop a variety of ways for students to blow off steam, including rap sessions, advisory groups and wellness programs. But the flexibility has also left schools juggling priorities and demands.
"In schools that have communities that want and expect a lot from them on less resources — and can't just jack up their tuition like some private schools can — it's really a challenge to take all of those multiple demands and make sense of them in a way that provides a distinct, yet a robust education for their children," Santelises said.
Twenty-eight of the city schools that offer middle-school recess partner with Playworks, an organization that provides full-time trained recess monitors, coaches and other program coordinators who oversee physical activity in schools every day.
The organization targets schools with a large number of low-income students and matches schools' $25,000 costs for the program. Cole said she offered Roland Park parents the option of Playworks if parents could help raise the funds for the program.
Jessica Kohnen Karaska, executive director of Playworks Baltimore, said the biggest barrier the organization sees in middle-school recess is time management. She said there is also a misconception that middle-school students don't need recess, or that students that age won't use the time to "play."
"Whether they're engaged in a game or not, that opportunity for that social interaction, to continue to develop who they are as people, and their interaction with their peers, is also a great opportunity at a recess," Karaska said.
The Roland Park parents said that more than anything, their children need balance at the school, where middle-schoolers have little time for bathroom or locker breaks in between classes, and are required to sit with their classes, rather than their friends, at lunch.
Havely Taylor said her sixth-grade daughter doesn't seem bothered by a lack of recess.
But, Taylor said, "I see her melt down after periods of structured time, without any break."
She added, "I feel like she's worked [too] hard to go to a correctional facility."