When Kimberly McKnight started as the Marlin Primary Academy principal two years ago, students only had one recess time.

Children climbed on old wood pieces and stairs made out of giant rubber tires, but they grew bored easily. And incidents involving rock throwing or pea-size pebbles stuck in noses or ears occurred almost on a weekly basis, McKnight said.

The school was in its fourth year of failing state academic accountability standards at the time, and the playground, one of the main outlets her students had to release nervous energy from trying to overcome the obstacle, was basically useless, she said.

But as school district officials and lawmakers across the United States continue a never-ending debate about mandatory recess times versus focusing more on standardized testing scores, recess has become a point of pride for Texas’ most struggling school district, school officials said.

This year, the district added a $60,000 playground for elementary students, replacing rocks with wood chips and tires with climbing walls, slides and jungle gyms in two areas on campus. And while recess time has fluctuated in the past couple of years, Marlin students now get two chances to exert some energy outside.

“Marlin ISD is struggling, but we’re turning it around,” McKnight said. “But I’m a big believer that recess, I think it’s important. I’ve seen too much research about the benefits of it to completely get rid of it. But if you’re going to have 80 kids out there all at one time, you have to give them something to do.”

While Marlin ISD has made progress on state standards since 2013, including its most-significant gains in the latest round of scores released, as of August, the district was the only one in the state on the Texas Education Agency’s improvement-required list for six consecutive years, according to TEA documents.

The elementary school passed one state standard index this year, its first in several years.

The playground was paid for by Falls County and built just in time for the start of school on Aug. 28. Residents have also started using it outside of school hours, too, McKnight said.

And though the district recently implemented new improvement plans for each campus to keep the district’s forward momentum, the new equipment is helping students learn new social skills and how to work out disagreements in a way they can’t do inside four walls and behind a desk, she said.

Tina Pricer, a second-grade math and science teacher, has seen her students return from recess rejuvinated and with a newfound respect for school property, she said.

“They walk around and pick up trash. They take a lot of pride in the new playground,” Pricer said.

Trends show more school districts have reassessed the benefits of recess in recent years, with a 5 percent increase between 2006 and 2013 in the number of districts requiring daily recess, The Wall Street Journal reported in June.

As of 2007, 20 percent of school districts had cut back on recess time, by an average of 50 minutes per week, according to The Wall Street Journal.

While state law mandates how much time is dedicated to physical exercise for kindergarten through eighth-grade students, the question of recess is handled locally.

Marlin fourth-grade teacher Kevin Stevenson moved to the district this school year from J.H. Hines Elementary School, one of Waco ISD’s six struggling schools.

“Here, the kids know on their schedule they have something to look forward to outside of their classroom as well as in the classroom,” Stevenson said. “In recent times, I’ve seen where that’s not always an option for students, going outside, playing sports, getting the exercise they need. It hasn’t always been a available. This is something that’s unique to me.”

While Waco ISD has met state standards overall consistently, J.H. Hines is also fighting the possibility of closure after being on the improvement required list for six years.

Since he arrived at Marlin, Stevenson has seen students, including Andrew Donahoo, grow in the short time the new playground has been available, he said.

“Now I have friends that play games with me, and I like to play games they like to play,” Donahoo said. “I didn’t do that before. There was a staircase of tires, and I would usually just go inside and hide. We would play hide and seek.”

Stevenson said his students are teaching him something new every day, like the rules to Zombie Tag or how to hold your foot the right way to kick a soccer ball, something most hadn’t known how to do before the new playground, he said.

Students in Marlin ISD are happy again, and it has been a while since McKnight has seen that kind of atmosphere on campus, she said. But that’s how school should be, she said.

“My favorite memory thus far is an epic soccer battle that ended 5-5, where no one wanted to go in and eat lunch,” Stevenson said. “Trying to tell them, ‘You have to eat,’ that’s probably the best time I can remember thus far. It ended. Everyone was running and breathing hard, and it was 5-5, and they just wanted five more minutes.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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