Mayor Rahm Emanuel blinked Tuesday in his signature drive for a longer school day.
Instead of requiring elementary schools to shift from the current 5.75-hour day to 7.5 hours, the mayor backed off and ordered a 7-hour day for elementary schools, beginning this fall.
High schools will stick with the mayor’s original proposal for a 7.5-hour day, but it will be limited to four days a week. On the fifth day, students will be dismissed 75 minutes early to give teachers more preparation time.
The surprise compromise followed a burgeoning revolt by parents concerned the 7.5-hour day would leave young kids exhausted and older kids unable to participate in after-school activities.
Under repeated questioning Tuesday, Emanuel refused to characterize the schedule change as a political retreat.
“There was nothing magical about … 7 hours or 7.5,” the mayor said at a news conference at Disney II Magnet Elementary, 3815 N. Kedvale, one of a handful of schools that pioneered the 7.5-hour day last fall. “The goal was not the time. The goal was the educational opportunity and the quality that went with it. … I would hope now that we’d stop debating about the time and start having a real discussion” about how to use it.
The mayor noted that he has compromised repeatedly in response to opposition to other issues. “I listened, as I have in each process. I set out a goal. We don’t compromise the goal. We find different means,” he said.
The mayor refused to say how he plans to pay for the modified longer day, even as the Chicago Public Schools face a deficit approaching $700 million next year. He noted that his handpicked school team has found the money to make strategic investments while making hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts.
Funding remains a pivotal question, according to Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), whose Southwest Side ward was home to the loudest parent protests against Emanuel’s original proposal. But O’Shea applauded the mayor for listening to parents concerned that the longer day would interfere with an extensive array of after school activities in Beverly and Mount Greenwood.
“There is so much after school [programming] and the parents are so involved, they feel they don’t need to be in school until 3:30-4 p.m.,” O’Shea said.
“… The fact of the matter is, the mayor listened. CEO [Jean-Claude] Brizard listened. … The parents want to be heard and I think they were heard.”
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who has gone toe-to-toe with Emanuel repeatedly, welcomed the mayor’s compromise, but she couldn’t resist lecturing Emanuel.
“Once again, CTU has been proven correct,” union President Karen Lewis said, calling the longer day a “political slogan, not an educational plan.”
“Now that the mayor is starting to listen to parents, teachers and research regarding the pitfalls of the longer school day program being pushed in school districts across the country, it is now time he used both ears to hear everything we are saying about the types of schools our children deserve. It is not the length of time but the quality of time that truly matters here.”
Last year, CTU officials proposed a seven-hour school day modeled after the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools as a “starting point” for discussion. On Tuesday, they welcomed Emanuel’s counterproposal, but said they believed parents would still prefer a 6.5-hour day.
Earlier this week, a coalition of sixteen parent groups demanded a meeting with Emanuel to go over the real research on a 7.5-hour school day and not the “misinformation” they charged CPS with spreading. A leader of the new Chicago Parents for Quality Education, Wendy Katten, called the mayor’s change of heart a “small step,” adding “I think parents are pleased that the mayor was willing to revise his original plan.”
Meanwhile, Mary Anderson, the executive director of Illinois Stand for Children – the driving force behind the law that allowed CPS to unilaterally impose a longer day – said a longer day is a “step in the right direction.” But she said she was “disappointed” in the mayor’s retreat from a 7.5-hour day.
“We will be holding the mayor and CPS accountable to fulfill their promise of a 7.5-hour day,” Anderson said. “We expect them to fulfill it in the 2013-14 school year because the 123,000 children in failing schools need that extra time.”
Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika, Rosalind Rossi