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Patchogue-Medford elementary students get double recess time

From left, fifth-graders Lilyanna Driscoll, 9, Aidan Jennings,

From left, fifth-graders Lilyanna Driscoll, 9, Aidan Jennings, 10, and Matthew White, 10, play during Tremont Elementary School's 40-minute recess on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. Seven elementary schools in the Patchogue-Medford district have doubled the time scheduled for recess in an effort to develop the "whole child." Credit: Steve Pfost

The Patchogue-Medford school district has doubled daily recess time to 40 minutes for all students in kindergarten through fifth grade — a scheduling move that is regarded as a first on Long Island and bucks a trend toward increased academic classwork for children.

Local school officials described the initiatives as part of broader efforts within the district to promote development of the “whole child.” That buzzword is popular among educators and parents worried about pressures exerted on youngsters by an array of programs, ranging from standardized Common Core testing to competitive sports.

The longer recess time took effect last week for about 3,000 students in all seven of Patchogue-Medford’s elementary schools, along with more classroom play time for many of those children. The 7,800-student system is the eighth-largest in the Nassau-Suffolk region.

The 20 minutes’ extra recess each day translates into a commensurate loss of instructional time. But school administrators and parent leaders said the change enhances learning, because children return from the playground refreshed.

“I think the students are more attentive for the rest of the day,” said Michael J. Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools for the past two years and an ardent supporter of the whole-child approach. “It’s the old paradox: Less is more.”

Andrea Garsik, a former PTA president at Tremont Elementary School in Medford, said she has noticed positive effects from the scheduling change since her daughter, Alexa, entered third grade on Tuesday.

“She’s said, ‘This is the best year ever, Mom,’ ” Garsik recalled. “The past three years, she’s had difficulty adjusting. She’s excited this year.”

Nationwide, recess has all but disappeared from many public schools in recent years, as education authorities stepped up test preparation in classrooms. The American Academy of Pediatrics viewed the situation with such concern in 2013 that it issued a policy statement warning schools not to take away recess for academic or punitive reasons.

A scattering of districts across the county have responded by extending recess time to as much as an hour a day.

In Texas, for example, 14 public schools are engaged in an experimental project that includes 60 minutes of daily recess, broken into two 15-minute periods before lunch, and another two periods after. The project — known as LiiNK, which stands for Let’s Inspire Innovation ’N Kids — is meant to encourage more physical activity among children. It is supported by researchers at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

On the Island, however, the norm remains 20 to 25 minutes per day, experienced educators said.

Lorna Lewis, immediate past president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said she knew of no district in the region providing as much recess time as Patchogue-Medford.

“It’s extremely rare,” said Lewis, who heads the Plainview-Old Bethpage system.

A dozen school officials, parents and teachers interviewed in Patchogue-Medford agreed that community reaction to extra recess and playtime has been overwhelmingly positive. However, some critics of school practices who live elsewhere on the Island questioned the initiatives when contacted by Newsday.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Andrea Vecchio, an East Islip taxpayer advocate. “Maybe schools will just be baby sitters for six years.”

Vecchio is a founder of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional group that monitors school spending and achievement.

In the Patchogue-Medford system, the elementary schools’ day starts at 9:25 a.m. with a brief homeroom period, followed by eight 40-minute periods. Dismissal is at 3 p.m. at the five schools that have staggered lunch periods, and at 3:10 for the two that do not.

Friday at Tremont Elementary, dozens of fifth-graders emerged from the building at 12:30 p.m. for their turn on the broad playing field. The fifth-graders, like younger students, combine 40 minutes’ recess with an equal amount of time for lunch.

A few complained at first of the summer heat. But within minutes, all the youngsters were engaged in activities of their choice — shooting hoops, zipping down a playground slide or squeezing water from a sponge on each other’s heads in a guessing game in which winners were dampened.

“I’m thrilled,” said principal Lori Koerner as she viewed the scene. “I love to watch kids exploring on their own time without someone telling them what to do.”

Fifth-grader Matt White praised the schedule change.

“You know, fifth-graders have the most work in the school,” the 10-year-old said. “It’s more fun being outside.”

Planning for Patchogue-Medford’s schedule changes began two years ago. Supporters included parents involved in the test boycott movement.

The result was a 174-page, five-year plan for the district, approved unanimously by school board trustees on Aug. 29.

The plan doesn’t ignore academics. One proposal under review would have 12th-graders write a dissertation, or research paper.

The emphasis, however, is on stress reduction — for example, yoga exercises in grades K-8.

“I can’t wait until we take this a little bit into middle school,” said board trustee Diana Andrade, the mother of a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader. “This is going to improve behavior.”

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