Filing forty–odd kindergarteners in and out of the bathroom as quickly as possible is nothing to joke about. With the risk of traffic jams and overflowing toilets, efficiency is of the utmost importance.
All that is asked of them is that they follow two simple rules.
Ms. Woods, one of the lunchtime aides, stands at the front of both lines while holding up one finger.
“How many times do we flush?” she asks.
“How many paper towels do we use?”
Ms. Woods nods her approval and the two lines in front of her, divided by sex, are taken through the bathrooms just outside the lunch room.
The whole process is characteristic of lunch time and recess as a whole, where tough love and efficiency ensure that kids get as much time as possible to play outside.
At Lea Elementary School, a cycle of three lunch periods begins at 11:30 a.m. and ends at 1:40 p.m. During that time, groups of over 100 kids need to transition from class, to lunch, to clean-up, to the bathroom, out to recess and back to class within roughly 40 minutes. The task is daunting enough as it is, but with only a handful of adults managing the madness, it’s an effort that becomes no less than Herculean. Enter the West Philadelphia Recess Initiative — a program that brings undergraduates into West Philadelphia’s Lea and Wilson Elementary Schools during the lunch period.
The Recess Initiative grew out of a failed grant about three years ago, when Professor Mary Summers was involved in an effort to get funding for the formation of school health councils, which were intended to build partnerships around healthier schools and connect to service learning courses.
“I felt pretty strongly that I wanted to find a way to work with schools where they identified what they would like undergraduates to be doing in the schools rather than just sending students in on a project that I came up with,” Summers explains.
Schools immediately identified recess as an area in which undergraduates could help.
During each lunch period, roughly 60 to 80 kids pour into each of the two cafeterias at Lea, bubbling about this game or that song or who said what about her — but the general hubbub is quickly contained. Girls enter first in one line, boys in another; all are divided by their respective classrooms. Contraband fingerboards and action figures are stuffed away into backpacks under threat of confiscation and those kids picking up their lunch go down one corridor between the tables. Anyone who ventures off a different way is quickly redirected back into the main line. One of the aides checks off names as kids retrieve their lunches and head to the tables to eat.
In the Philadelphia school district teachers get their own lunch break, so they don’t have to be on lunch–recess duty. Schools hire a handful of noontime aides, but that leaves a huge ratio of children to adults during a crucial part of the day. Recess is the only time students have to release their energy and refocus for the afternoon of classwork. It’s also the time of day for physical activity, which is an important stratagem in the fight against childhood obesity — a problem of especially great concern in underserved schools and urban communities. And, of course, recess is the time of day when the most kids go to the nurse and there’s the most bullying, fighting and chaos.
Several years ago, with the unavoidably high ratio of kids to staff, kids were often barely getting any time for recess at all. The logistics of maintaining order in the lunch room were simply too time–consuming. The idea was that if there were a group of young, eager students on the blacktop to help organize games, the handful of adults that were available to monitor the noon-time chaos could do so more easily.
College sophomore Anne Delmar, the recess coordinator at Lea, compares the set up to that of a family.
“The noontime aides are the parents and we’re more like the big siblings: we reinforce what ‘the parents’ are saying but at the same time we play with the kids and have more in common with them because we’re also still pretty young.”
She also describes what mentors do on a more practical level.
“If we’re there to organize an activity it gives the kids more to do so they’re not just arguing over a jump rope or something. They have more options and that helps control them, but in a fun way.”
Kindergartners, first and second graders have silent lunch in order to focus on eating quickly so that they have enough time to get outside. Kindergartners are expected to open their milk and other food on their own so that they can learn to be self-sufficient. Although they sometimes struggle at first, they do get it, sometimes tearing things open with their teeth. It’s all part of the plan for a more efficient lunch process overall and in turn a testament to the intense coordination that’s needed between lunch aides and across age groups. If they learn to help themselves at a young age, lunch runs much more smoothly when those kids become first graders and start having lunch with the second graders.
“Ms. Woods has really helped the [kindergartners] develop motor skills by having them open their own things and having them throw things out by themselves, just making them more independent,” notes Delmar.
Penn students chat amongst themselves while the younger kids eat and then slide onto the benches with the older kids during the later lunch periods, beginning with the third and fouth grade group at 12:20 p.m. Mentors from last year catch up with the kids they know and both new and returning mentors try to learn the names of those they don’t.
Most of the noontime aides stay off to the side during lunch, but Mr. Brown, the recess director, weaves his way through the tables with a bulging bag of rubber bands, high-fiving students and jumping into conversations. In the few times he pauses he works on the chain of bands he’s knotting together into a Chinese jump rope.
Most of the kids eat the school lunch, but a few bring treats from home. A bag of potato chips is quickly auctioned off to the highest bidder — a boy with a yellow backpack who gives up a cookie for the trade. A girl with long cornrows solemnly divvies up a bag of Herb’s spicy cheese popcorn, giving a shake or two into the outstretched palms surrounding her.
Everyone is expected to clean up after themselves, and each table’s occupants aren’t excused for recess until the tables are wiped down and dropped food is put in the trash. This not only hastens the transition from lunch to recess — it also keeps kids responsible for cleaning up after themselves. Students chuck wrappers and empty cartons into the trash cans at the end of their table and during the older kids’ lunch periods each table has students designated to wipe down the tables and sweep the floor.
Last fall the Recess Initiative officially affiliated with Community School Service Partnerships (CSSP), a student organization that also runs tutoring and after-school programs for local schools. At Lea there are about 40 volunteers this semester, though that number keeps growing as more people continue to sign up. About half are affiliated with an academically based community service (ABCS) course, like Summers’ seminar this semester, the Politics of Food and Agriculture. The rest are purely volunteers or participating as part of work-study.
At Wilson, an additional school, students affliated the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia are being incorporated into the program for the first time. Twenty-eight USP students and 16 Penn undergraduates are helping at Wilson this semester, all as either work-study or volunteers.
This year, the Recess Initiative has a grant from the Center of Public Health Initiatives to identity key elements of a successful university-school partnership in establishing a recess program.
Summers calls USP’s new involvement a “bit of a test of whether this is a model that can attract other universities and colleges… As far as I know, we are the first people proposing the idea of involving college students in improving recess.”
Other groups, like EducationWorks, a regional organization that helped facilitate mentor training this semester, and Playworks, a national initiative, are two notable efforts to address the issue of recess. However, Summers believes their models of sending in a coach or Americorps volunteers can be supplemented with the Recess Initiative model.
She defines the Recess Initiative as a model in which “college students can learn a lot about urban schools, do something really useful, and get a real feeling for urban schools. [Additionally, the university-school partnership can] help bring the resources of a university to the school in other ways, because once you start to make those connections … the program starts to expand and connect more resources in a way that a simple ‘bring-in-a-coach’ model would not.” Summers concedes some disadvantages to university-school partnerships; for example, the mismatch between the school calendar and the University calendar, in which vacations don’t line up.
“There are so many issues … that if you don’t have a good strong program in place that then college students can support, then you have a really difficult situation … ”
Summers cites strong leadership within the schools as another factor that ensures the success of university-school partnerships, noting that it’s taken three years before they found Mr. Brown.
“We’re already getting calls from other schools who are interested, you know, or trying to figure out what to do about recess. There’s a whole bunch of partnerships here, and I’m not sure exactly how they’re going to develop, but there’s good possibility for expanding this.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s about how good recess is for the kids, and even that can be measured in a somewhat tangible way.
“When we started, the key data we tried to collect was how long children were getting at recess. When we started the kindergarteners at Lea were getting less than five minutes a day … And last year they were getting close to twenty.”
At recess most kids know what they’re going to do the second they hit the blacktop. A large group of boys heads for the basketball court. Another few dozen play kickball with Ms. Tasha. A small group of girls congregate under the only tree at the corner of the blacktop — “their” tree. And a few stragglers float between the games — little groups break off and play tag or hopscotch or talk. As the afternoon wears on and older groups come out for lunch, the jungle gym slowly empties, the basketball game gets larger and the small groups of girls playing hopscotch become roaming bands of pre-teens gossiping amongst themselves.
One Penn student directs the basketball game while the other mentors drift around the sun-drenched blacktop. Some organize small games of red-light green-light or hopscotch with the younger kids, or chat with groups of girls on the monkey bars. Mediation is constant as little disagreements and skirmishes break out all over the place. One little boy is held back as he attempts to retaliate against some girls who were teasing him. A student with her hair in flower barrettes gets her shoe stolen by an older girl. She hops after her for a few yards but then starts running on her shoeless foot to try and get it back.
Mentors sort kids out, try to identify the perpetrator and victim and calm both parties down.
“The whole point of our program is to create structure without being overbearing,” Delmar explains. “On the days when there are more mentors there I see less conflict … I think just having extra help around keeps things calmer. The mentor can act as a mediator and tell everyone to calm down.”
Mr. Brown or another lunch aide steps in if things get too heated, with one of the aides escorting kids inside or to the nurse when needed. Mr. Brown almost always has one or two kids by the hand as he leads them to other games when tensions run too high.
The commotion of the day breaks out shortly after recess for the third and fourth graders begins. The batter in the kickball game catches the edge of his foot on a particularly fast-pitch ball, and it lands in the open dumpster to the left of the diamond. Everyone on the field immediately dashes to the open dumpster amid shouts and discussion of what to do. A couple kids try to climb in and grab it, but no one is tall enough to get over the side. Mr. Brown comes over and yells for everyone to get back, then chooses a volunteer. He then dangles the brave recruit by his ankles, but the unlucky kid just can’t quite reach and eventually he’s set down outside the bin. A slightly bigger boy is lowered in upside-down, and within seconds the ball comes sailing out, covered in garbage sludge.
Mr. Brown moves on to play dodgeball with a group of kids who have lost interest in their previous games. He has them all line up against a wall and tosses the ball at them as they shriek in delight trying to avoid it.
If you want to volunteer for the West Philadelphia Recess Initiative, contact Community Schools Student Partnerships at penncssp@gmail or check out their website, www.penncssp.com.