Finding Time for Success
Test Pressures Spur Some Schools to Stretch Out Calendar

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

Under mounting pressure to raise achievement in public schools, a handful of states and cities and many charter schools are seeking to squeeze more hours, days and even weeks into the academic calendar to ensure students get the reading and math lessons they need without sacrificing music, art or even recess.

The extended-school movement has gained important allies on Capitol Hill and is touted by billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad as a step the next president should consider.

The advantages of a longer school day could be seen one Friday at the D.C. Preparatory Academy. After the final bell at most schools in the city, second-graders in one D.C. Prep classroom started a round of chess. They also read one more book before heading home. With a school day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., they spend as much time at the Northeast Washington charter school as many adults spend on the job: 40 hours a week.

That's about 7 1/2 hours longer than the weekly schedule for their peers in regular D.C. schools, as well as the schedule in most public schools nationwide. But some educators and lawmakers have concluded that the old-fashioned school day is simply too short, especially for struggling students, even though it's unclear whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

"Our aspirations for both children and schools have increased dramatically, and we're still working out of the old, very limited box," said Paul Reville, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education and co-chairman of the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, formed in the fall to promote longer school days. "It's not working. We're not getting all students to high standards. It seems to us, the way to do that is make more time available."

Washington area school systems aren't adding mandatory hours, but they are offering more optional lessons for struggling students after school, on weekends or during summer break.

More than 60 percent of students in Montgomery County elementary schools with high numbers of children from low-income families attend a free month-long summer session. In January, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced a voluntary, 14-week Saturday Scholars program for students who need extra help preparing for reading and math tests.

Seven Fairfax County elementary schools that serve large numbers of low-income families have redesigned their calendar to trim the long summer vacation, which can set kids back academically. During vacations, those schools also offer well-attended voluntary sessions. Sixteen other Fairfax elementary schools have added two hours to their week by not closing early Mondays; most of the county's elementary schools close early that day to give teachers more preparation time.

Elsewhere, Massachusetts is spending $13 million this year for longer days at 18 schools. Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D) has proposed to double the initiative. Last year, Pittsburgh converted eight schools to "accelerated-learning academies" with an extra 45 minutes a day and an extra 10 days a year for students. New York has tacked on additional minutes each day for certain campuses in 28 school systems to help improve achievement. And New Mexico is spending $7.1 million to add 25 extra days at 29 schools where students need the most help. If that program were statewide, it would cost about $17 million a day.

In the presidential campaign, Gates and Broad are teaming up through an organization called Strong American Schools to promote expanded learning time for all students, among other issues. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) also is pushing for federal funds to support schools with extended days and to train teachers who work in them. Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) has proposed grants for states and school systems to support longer days.

The Massachusetts program, begun in 2006 in schools with a high percentage of students in poverty, has shown promising results. Students in schools with extended days have had greater gains in state reading and math tests than peers in schools with traditional schedules.

But experts say there is not yet enough research to prove that stretching out the school day is worthwhile. It's an expensive proposition that can cause conflicts with teachers unions and cut into time traditionally spent on sports and other after-school activities. Most schools with longer days and higher test scores have also made other changes, often to the curriculum or teacher training.

"We really don't know if we need more time," said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Washington think tank Education Sector. "Could we design schools differently? If more time is spent on engaged learning and less on classroom management and other things, then you don't really need to extend time."

David Baker, an education and sociology professor at Penn State University, said international math test data show that more class time doesn't always yield better scores. "Taiwan has high scores, and they have a lot of instruction time, but so do the Philippines, and they don't do very well," Baker said. "I think the school day is a bit of a nonissue. It deflects from the real issue of instructional quality."

Nancy Mullen, principal of Matthew J. Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Mass., said that longer mandatory school days ensure that every student benefits. Extra time for math and reading, she said, as well as fun lessons on Harry Potter chemistry, ham radios and drama helped Kuss become the state's first chronically underperforming middle school to shed that label and meet its targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"We were doing a lot of things at once, so it's hard to determine the benefit of expanded learning time," Mullen said. "We have a new curriculum. I'm hopeful we're instructing in new and more exciting ways. If I had to place a bet, I'd say it was a combination of all of them."

Mullen said it was hard to know exactly how long to stretch the day. Last school year, Kuss students spent nearly nine hours in school four days a week, with one shorter day. By midyear, the schedule was wearing on teachers. This school year, Kuss scaled back to eight hours and 15 minutes a day.

Charter schools, with public funding but independent management, often lengthen school days. D.C. Prep teacher Melissa Long said her second-grade classes have grown richer with the longer school day. In Baltimore, where she previously taught, Long didn't have much time for social studies, let alone science experiments and other hands-on activities that get kids excited. "It was all math, reading and test prep," she said.

In a survey of almost 350 school systems, the District-based Center on Education Policy found that 44 percent cut time from elementary school subjects including science, social studies, art and physical education to make more time for reading and math -- the subjects the federal law stresses.

One recent Friday, Long's students measured their arm span in inches and the length of a long jump in centimeters, part of the 80-minute-a-day math lesson. They learned about words ending in "-ice" and talked about voting and elections during two hours of literacy work. There was still time to read "The Giving Tree" and start a discussion about the economics of needs and wants. Students also played chess and had art and physical education classes. There's also time built into each day to give struggling students extra help.

"Even though the hours are hard, it's worth it," Long said. "I see the difference in my kids and their families."

Second-grader Hevin Bellamy-Jones, 7, said she's happy to spend more time in school. "When you go home, you say, 'Mom and Dad, I don't need help. I learned it at school,' " she said. "We could learn better and we could get smart, and when we go to college we could get a certificate."

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