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Group asks school board to survey all CPS parents on need for 7.5-hour day

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard unveil a new online tool for parents to get critical data about their children’s schools, Monday, November 14, 2011 at Manuel Perez Elementary School in Pilsen. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

The battle over a 7.5-hour school day kicked up a notch last week, as a group of 19th Ward parents asked Chicago Public Schools to survey all parents at the next report card pickup about how long the school day at their school should be.

The request was posed at a Thursday night forum with CPS officials during which 19th Ward parents questioned why CPS seemed stuck on a 7.5-day for all students when the national average is 6.6 hours, the state average is 6.5 hours, and the top-10 suburban elementary average is 6.5.

Although low-performing schools may want to expand their school day from the current 5.75 hours to 7.5 hours, 19th Ward parents said their schools are high-performing. They feared such a long day would leave their children too tired or too busy to enjoy quality family time, after-school activities or the simple joys of childhood.

“We’re not saying what’s good for us is good for all,” parent Becky Malone of Mount Greenwood School told CPS officials. “We’re simply asking that CPS look at the needs of each individual school.”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who hosted the forum at Morgan Park High, endorsed a survey by cash-strapped CPS that would ask parents their length-of-day preference. In his community – one O’Shea described as “full of policemen, firemen and teachers,” the preference seems to be 6.5 hours, the alderman said.

“Over 350 parents went through the door tonight and clearly, they want their voices heard,” O’Shea said. “It’s important that the parents of every one of our students have the opportunity to weigh in. How hard would it be to include [a survey] with the report card?”

Asked Friday about surveying parents during report card pickup scheduled for April 18 and 19, CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said, “This isn’t about the ideal length of the school day – this is about providing the time needed to get all of our students ready for college and career.”

Wendy Katten said members of the longer-day CPS advisory committee she sits on were not asked what length of day they prefer. Instead, said Katten, co-founder of the parent group Raise Your Hand, CPS officials “came in with an agenda of how long the day was going to be.” As a result, said Katten, “It’s an illusion of inclusion. … They have shut out parents from this.”

Meanwhile, parents say they face an uphill battle doing a survey on their own. Amid the rallying cry from Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a longer school day, Keller Gifted Local School Council member Christine McGovern said she was unable to convince her principal to survey parents on their length-of-day preference. Parents did one themselves, but without full access to a school mailing or email list, just over 100 parents of 244 students wound up surveyed. They were overwhelmingly in favor of something less than 7.5 hours.

An online survey by the parent group Raise Your Hand found most parents definitely wanted a longer day – but not a 7.5 hour one. However, Mary McClelland, Stand for Children’s Illinois Communications chief, dismissed the results as reflective of only Raise Your Hand members.

McClelland said even Stand for Children, which helped push through the bill that allows CPS to unilaterally impose a longer day next school year, has not done a scientific survey of parents on their longer-day preferences.

“I think engaging parents on this issue is critical and there’s a lot of strategies to do that and that could definitely be one,” McClelland said. “The more parent voices, the better.”

A telephone poll on the 7.5-hour day conducted Thursday night, during a Stand for Children telephonic town hall with Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, was merely a “quick and dirty” poll and far from scientific, McClelland said. When nearly 2,100 participants were asked if they supported a “30 percent increase in instructional time, with art and music,” a mere 70 responded, and 53 percent said, “Yes.”

CPS Chief Instruction Officer Jennifer Cheatham tried Thursday night to reassure the crowd at Morgan Park High that “we’re here to listen.”

With new tougher state tests on their way, “even high-performing schools will need to do better” and could use the extra time, she said. Requests for “flexibility” at such schools as Northside College Prep and Whitney Young Magnet High School – the state’s No. 1 and No. 2 highest-scoring public high schools – are being weighed, she said.

Cheatham also told parents:

â—† To prevent students from going home in the dark after the longer day, elementary dismissals would be no later than 3:45 p.m. and high school ones would be no later than 4 p.m.

â—† CPS has “an idea about how to do funding” – but Cheatham wouldn’t say what it is. She said each school will get a “lump sum” that principals will be able to use with flexibility. The system is currently doing some “per-pupil modeling,” she said, and a base will be set so that smaller schools will not be unfairly disadvantaged.

â—† School budgets for the longer day will be released in April, and the longer school day may ultimately involve “a three- to four-year plan.” Asked what would be cut to pay for the longer day, Cheatham said, “There are definitely programs that are not effective and we are going to make tough decisions.”