High-schoolers' 'recess': Benefit or brain drain?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 7:10 PM

There is no limit to what you learn about schools if you listen to teachers. Did you know, for instance, that Fairfax County, the Washington region's largest school district, is using 10 days a year of valuable instruction time on do-what-you-like recesses for high school students?

I didn't, either. West Springfield High School physics teacher Ed Linz says this program, designed to help struggling students, is a waste. At his school, students get 90 free minutes a week, which they can use to find dates for Saturday night or check basketball scores, if they want. But his principal, Paul Wardinski, says most students do homework, work on group projects and enrich their studies. It helps teachers to be creative, he says, even if some students look for imaginative ways to goof off.

Linz disclosed the recesses to the county School Board last month. Like President Obama, he said that this is our Sputnik moment and that we can't win the future throwing away precious class time.

Fairfax high schools have different names and schedules for the periods. At West Springfield, two 45-minute sessions a week are used to help the 10 percent or so of students in danger of flunking Virginia's Standards of Learning exams. The periods are called "Spartan Time," in honor of the school mascot. Linz says, "Many do not show up for the remediation." Wardinski says the extra study time has reduced D's and F's by a third.

Students without F's on their report cards, the vast majority, may do what they want. Linz says he sees too many of them "socializing, surfing the Internet or - I am not kidding - watching TV in the cafeteria, all during the school day, when parents assume their children are in class."

Linz is a former Navy captain who once ran a nuclear submarine. He likes to be precise. He calculated that the sessions last year accounted for more than 3,400 minutes, the equivalent of about 10 days of instruction. He says other teachers tell him that the recesses make it harder to keep regular lessons on schedule.

"In my school, for example, all of our five physics teachers are already between one and two weeks behind," he said. "All AP courses are being dramatically affected. These exams are difficult enough for students, even if you have a full year of instruction."

Richard Moniuszko, deputy division superintendent for Fairfax public schools, says he knows of few such complaints. He says teachers are keeping all students on target. Struggling students need help during the school day so they can get to activities or jobs after school, or catch a bus home, he says. When I pointed out that Montgomery County, Fairfax's academic rival across the Potomac, doesn't do it that way, he laughed and said, "That's because we are better than they are."

He was not happy, however, about students watching TV. He said he planned to fix that because all students should be studying. Wardinski said that only about 100 West Springfield students spend Spartan Time in the cafeteria: They have to be on the honor roll for A and B students (about 600 of the school's 2,259 students qualify). Most work on group projects, the principal says, because one TV set is stuck on a school channel and the other has just ESPN with the sound off. Internet surfing is possible in the library, but Facebook is blocked. Students are not supposed to use cellphones.

Linz insists that this is stealing instruction "from the majority of students who attend school regularly" and is giving remedial instruction to "a small number of students who do not come to school regularly and who do virtually no assigned work."

Wardinski disagrees and seems open to more ideas. Maybe the students who don't need remediation could be assigned research papers, something nearly every high school avoids. They could examine the issue of what does and does not constitute wasting time in school.

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