NORMAL — Seventh-grader Samantha Williams could see her friends at other lunch tables, but rules at Parkside Junior High School didn't allow her to get up from her table to visit with them.
Now, Williams can hang out with her friends because she and several classmates turned a civics lesson into reality.
They are among 60 to 75 other students who enjoy, when the gym is available, "free time" after they finish eating lunch.
During their 30-minute lunch period, the students can get up from their tables if they go into the gym and participate in physical activities, such as walking and playing basketball or volleyball. Physical education teacher Phillip Nevels supervises them.
To make it possible, Williams along with Alexis Guerrero, Fernanda Olivo and Mikayla Fairfield, gathered enough signatures on a petition about a month ago to convince administrators to allow, at least on a trial basis, one of the four lunch periods to include "free time" twice a week.
Other lunch periods have not been participating because there are physical education classes at those times so the gym is not available, said Principal Dan Lamboley.
But soon, the opportunity could open up to more students with warm weather permitting them to go outdoors to get some exercise during their lunch periods.
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"They like to call it recess, but I told them not to. I said, 'Well, we're in middle school now. We don't call it recess,'" Lamboley said. "The idea behind it is very good."
There are numerous studies about the benefits of getting kids, especially in middle school, more active throughout the day, and "otherwise, they would just be sitting here with, say, 15 minutes to burn in the cafeteria," he said. "Most are choosing to go (to the gym) if they can. I think from what we can see they appreciate it. They like that opportunity."
"If I have other close friends sitting across the lunchroom, I can see them in the gym while playing volleyball." Williams said. "I think another benefit of getting this is knowing that we can make differences and changes in our school. That's a good feeling."
The school probably would not be giving the students the additional exercise had the students not asked, Lamboley said.
It all started with a simple question Olivo asked in teacher Steven Destri's social studies class during a discussion about freedoms Americans enjoy.
"I asked why they took away recess from junior high because we always have a lot of time left after we get done eating," Olivo recalled. Destri told the students they should ask Lamboley and associate principal Mike Clark that question.
The principals said recess was discontinued at the school more than five years ago, buy they did not know why.
"I told them that if they could explain this to the rest of the lunchroom and have kids sign a petition I said we would do it," Lamboley.
The girls had to get 75 signatures; they came back with more than 85.
When they showed up with the petition, kids were eager to sign it, the girls said.
"I was glad everyone was ready and willing to sign it," Fairfield said. "Basically in junior high you're done with the more fun, kid activities, but now I'm glad we brought it back."
"Usually we're told to do things," Guerrero added. "I think it's pretty cool that we stood up for ourselves and asked for what we wanted."