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As Push for Longer Hours Forms, Intriguing Models Arise in D.C.

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 5, 2007

For most of his last year at the Washington Jesuit Academy in Northeast Washington, middle-schooler Troy Presbury has arrived with the sun, about 7:30 a.m., and not left until after dark, dragging himself out of a required study hall at 7:15 p.m.

"I feel like: Hurry up and get home so I can go to sleep," the 13-year-old said.

Still, the long day will pay off, Troy said. "I am going to go to a good high school and a good college and make a good living," he said, "and I think it is worth it."

Few students in the country come close to putting in the 12-hour days of Troy and his classmates. But the school's students, mostly low-income African Americans, have shown such improvement on test scores with the expanded schedule that D.C. officials are looking to add similar programs to the city's public schools.

Fewer than half of Washington Jesuit students were reading at grade level when they entered the school in sixth grade, said the school's headmaster, John Hoffman. But by eighth grade, 90 percent of the students had reached that level.

Elena Silva, senior policy analyst for the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, said in a new report that school leaders being pushed to improve U.S. student achievement are turning in increasing numbers "to one of the most fundamental features of the public education system: the amount of time students spend in school."

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), hoping to take control of the city's schools, has been admiring the District's Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, with their nine-hour school days, Saturday classes and mandatory three-week summer school, said Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for his office.

"Not only are the school days lengthened," she said, "but schools like KIPP also constantly examine and work to improve how time is used within the day to ensure that students are exposed to the maximum amount of effective learning time possible."

The oldest KIPP school in the city, KEY Academy, has test scores higher than any other D.C. middle school.

The advantages of more time, however, "are by no means certain or universal," unless the time is used effectively with focused, engaging teaching, Silva wrote.

Studies suggest that poor and minority students, in particular, benefit more from extended time, especially if they go to summer school, according to Silva's report.

Much of the school day, however, is filled with announcements, recess and other activities that do not help achievement, studies show. More academic time in which students are engaged correlates with higher achievement, Silva said, but longer school days do not. One Chicago study showed that schools delivered less than 240 minutes of instruction each day, despite a state mandate of 300 minutes.

Still, many school systems believe that longer school days and school years are the way to improve achievement.

In Massachusetts, a $6.5 million program is underway that increases the school day by 30 percent in 10 schools with a high percentage of low-income children.

Chris Gabrieli, chairman of Massachusetts 2020, a nonprofit group that lobbied for the expanded learning time initiative, said it not only gives students more time to learn but revitalizes teachers. "There is an incredible renaissance of energy because everyone has to think through, with all this extra time, 'How do I want to do things differently?' " he said. The result, he said, is "born-again schools."

Gabrieli said the 10 schools, in five systems, have elementary or middle school grades and have gone from the standard six-hour day to eight hours. The portion of low-income students at each school ranges from 42 to 88 percent.

Several Washington area schools have before-school and after-school programs that give more time to students who need additional help or want enriched lessons. Some have reorganized their school year to cut down on the long summer vacation that hurts achievement growth, particularly among low-income students.

A 1996 review of 39 studies by Duke University researcher Harris Cooper "found that summer learning loss was the equivalent of about one month of learning for a typical student over a standard summer vacation," Silva said. The cumulative effect over several years was particularly harmful to low-income students, Silva said.

Since 1999, 20 Fairfax County schools with large numbers of low-income students have reorganized their schedules. Sixteen schools added two hours to their week by not closing early Monday as most county elementary schools do. Four reshuffled the vacation schedule so they still have the standard 180 days of school a year but no vacation longer than three weeks. All 20 have met state accreditation standards, and only two are on the federal "needs improvement" list.

D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has proposed year-round classes at five mainly low-achieving schools to eliminate the long summer learning gap. Fenty agreed that "pilot year-round schools within [D.C. Public Schools] would certainly be a way to gauge the effectiveness of these programs and inform decisions about how to integrate extended learning programs throughout the school system," Hobson said.

But no school systems have increased the length of the school day and year as much as private schools such as Washington Jesuit or charter schools such as KIPP.

At Washington Jesuit Academy, the 12 hours of school each day are not fully dedicated to classroom instruction. Hoffman said students have breakfast and then a school day that extends from 8:10 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., including lunch. Students break for sports and activities, return for a half-hour dinner at 5 p.m. and then have a 110-minute supervised study hall in which no talking is allowed. Summer school is also required.

The school is very small, with 64 students.

Eighth-grader Markus Franklin said that it took time for him to adjust to the long day but that he is now glad that he can go home with his homework done so he can "read or watch TV."

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