Chicago Public Schools Eliminate Sophomore Sports While Considering Preschool Cutbacks and Four Day School Week – What Are They Thinking?

Regular readers of this blog know that we mostly write about music related topics. You may also know that I am a Suzuki violin teacher. I’ve been hearing news lately that, although unrelated to music education, has deeply concerned me as an educator. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is making many decisions which will hit students of all ages where it hurts. This past spring, they struck high school children by eliminating sophomore sports. Now, they may be cutting out preschool in many areas of the city and considering a proposal to cut the school week back to four days.

Chicago has made national news over the past year or so for its high crime rate among students of all ages. We’ve seen Mayor Richard M. Daley, Ron Huberman (Chief Executive Officer of the CPS), and Jody Weis (Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department) in news conferences expressing their sadness and outrage at these tragedies. Many educators and community activists agree that one of the best ways to guide children along the right path is with a quality education. If we really want to make things better, it doesn’t make any sense at all to make cuts in our educational system.

Preschool Cuts

Last week, CPS officials announced that they are planning to close many preschools in the city. School principals will receive their budgets on Monday and find out if their preschool programs will close at the end of the current school year. According to a March 24 article on catalystchicago.com:

“If you don’t have 93 percent of students on free and reduced lunch, and you don’t have a large proportion of English Language Learners, the probability is that you’re closed,” says Barbara Bowman, head of the CPS Office of Early Childhood Education.

The article also states that the most impoverished schools will not lose their preschool programs. Many of the cuts will occur in neighborhoods where families may be able to pay to send their children to a private preschool. I also heard information on the local ABC news station that some families may be given a partial tuition option. Nevertheless, preschool cutbacks in any neighborhood, regardless of its financial profile, may give parents the mistaken idea that preschool is unimportant.

As I mentioned above, I am a Suzuki violin teacher. Part of Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy is the idea that all children are capable of learning and developing exceptional talent. He believed that children should begin to learn at an early age. Many Suzuki students begin their musical studies between the ages of three and five because this is a critical time in their development. This can apply to education in any subject, since children of this age are learning language and social skills. Moreover, preschool is an important and necessary step in a child’s readiness to enter elementary school. Numerous studies have shown that children who attend preschool do much better in elementary school than those who do not. It’s a no-brainer. A child who has attended preschool will do much better when he enters kindergarten than a child who has been at home watching television all day. There is a wonderful article about this subject on edutopia.org.

Last but not least, cutting back preschool would place a financial burden on not only on impoverished working parents but also middle-class families who would have to find alternative daycare for their children. Many parents work multiple jobs in order to give their family a moderately comfortable lifestyle, and it would be a headache for them to have to find additional funds to pay for preschool or daycare.

Four-Day School Week

Last week, the Illinois House proposed and approved a measure that was sent on to the Senate to reduce the school week to a four-day school week. This March 24 Chicago Tribune article states that the idea came from Mark Janesky, superintendent of the rural downstate Jamaica school district in Vermillion County, as a way to cut costs. According to Janesky, the four-day school week would save money by allowing the district to have to pay for one fewer day of bus service, heat, and cafeteria expenses. This might work well in a rural area where children work on the farms alongside their families. But it would be disastrous for schools in urban areas and working parents who would have to find some way to take care of their children on the additional day off of school. That would be a financial hardship for most. When I was a child, I spent the day at my grandmother’s house on the occasional teacher institute day and during winter and spring break. By the middle of the day, she would be exhausted and half asleep on the kitchen table while I gleefully watched television. I can’t imagine her having to do that every week. Families without relatives in town wouldn’t even have that option.

A four-day school week would also leave children with more opportunities to get in trouble. It’s no secret that kids who commit crimes are often those who have nothing to keep them busy during after-school hours.  Now, imagine students who will have an entire extra day with nothing to do. And I’m not just talking about children in gang-ridden urban areas. I attended a suburban high school, and there were affluent families who didn’t provide any activities for their children after school. Many of these kids were involved in cyber crime, drug use, and promiscuous behavior.

Thankfully, it looks like the four-day school week will likely not be approved for Chicagoland area schools. Monique Bond, spokesman for the CPS, has said that they are looking to increase the amount of time that children spend in school, rather than cutting back. Nevertheless, she also expressed concerns that financially struggling schools might be tempted to adopt a shorter school week to save money. But the fact that Illinois lawmakers were even considering passing a four-day school week leads me to think that their heads are screwed on backwards.

Goodbye Sophomore Sports

In the beginning of March, the CPS was informed that sophomore sports will be halted for the spring semester. According to this article on the Chicago Tribune website, district sports director Calvin Davis sent the following memo out to school athletic directors on March 2:

“Though spring sports teams can officially begin practice today, the varsity and freshman levels are the only levels of girls and boys coaches approved to begin practice at this time,” the memo said. “The CPS system continues to carefully examine all programs before specific budgetary decisions are finalized.”

As a music teacher, I am no stranger to budget and program cuts. Fine arts have been dying in our public schools for years, and nobody ever had much of a problem with it. Yet team sports always seemed untouchable, no matter how bad the budget. When I heard about the elimination of sophomore sports, I immediately thought that the CPS must be having serious money problems to be taking this drastic step.

Of any of the three issues that I mentioned above, this one could have the most immediately negative impact. How can anyone in their right mind think that it is a good idea to cancel sports, when this is often the only outlet for children who would otherwise be out on the streets with nothing to do? It makes no sense at all to cancel sports for children in their sophomore year. Children who have developed skills during their freshman year will lose all of them during this enforced hiatus. How many students will return to sports during their junior year if they have found other less positive ways to occupy themselves after school? They certainly won’t be able to come back if they’ve been killed in a random gang shooting.

Dr. Suzuki wanted to make the world a better place through children and music. He also believed that this philosophy could be applied not just through music education but also through our school system. I’m certainly not implying that all schools should implement the Suzuki philosophy. However, I think that it would be wonderful to improve the world through our children. We can only achieve this goal by giving our children the very best education possible. Here’s hoping that the CPS administrators will make smart decisions so that through our children, we can make the city a better place.

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