By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 10:43 PM
The two Southeast Washington middle schools are less than a mile apart. The real distance that separates them is the number of hours their students spend in class each week.
At Johnson Middle School, the day is 61/2 hours, 8:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Students at AIM Academy, a KIPP charter school, stay for nine hours, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 71/2 hours on Friday. That doesn't count the mandatory 15 days of summer school and numerous four-hour Saturday sessions. In all, AIM kids spend 40 percent more time in class than their D.C. public school peers.
Longer school days are expensive and complicated to execute, requiring buy-in from teachers, parents, after-school programs and child-care providers. And the evidence that extended schedules actually improve academic performance is mixed at best.
But new support for a school calendar that breaks the traditional 61/2-hour, 180-day mold may force the District to give the idea more serious consideration. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called for longer days and shorter summer breaks. And school districts across the country are experimenting with extended days, especially as a way to help low-income students. Last month, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation that would add 30 minutes to the public school schedule.
The District's school day is light compared with those in other public systems in the region. Some high schools in Fairfax and Prince George's counties run for seven hours or more. Montgomery County's day is as long as six hours and 45 minutes.
KIPP officials say that the extended day is central to their academic program and that the results speak for themselves. On this year's DC-CAS standardized tests, AIM's reading proficiency scores were nearly four times higher than Johnson's. In math, the gap was almost fivefold.
Cheh's proposal would add about 90 hours a year to the District's school clock, an increase of 9 percent. She said that the measure is intended only to begin a community conversation and that her interest is not driven solely by charter-school success stories such as KIPP.
It is also a response, she said, to complaints from public school parents that the time committed to preparation for standardized reading and math tests has squeezed art, foreign language and physical education to the margins.
"What we should do is think about a longer day," Cheh said.
D.C. school officials said their after-school programs include an "academic power hour" of instruction to help reinforce classroom lessons. But spokesman Frederick Lewis said they are also aware of the potential benefits of an expanded day.
"We look forward to assessing the feasibility of council member Cheh's legislation and how it can best serve our students," Lewis said.
One unanswered question is whether a longer day leads to more learning. The most extensive ongoing experiment has yielded mixed results. Creators of the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative, which involves 22 public schools across the state, say the additional 300 hours a year have given students a richer academic experience and provided more time for teachers to plan and collaborate. They report that the schools are in higher demand among parents.
But an independent evaluation found that, with the exception of higher science scores for fifth-graders, there were no statistically significant differences between schools on expanded schedules and those with conventional days.
"ELT seems to have had no significant effect on a whole range of student outcomes, including [standardized test] scores, attendance, participation in out-of-school activities . . . or level of engagement in school," said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a Washington think tank.
KIPP DC Executive Director Susan Schaeffler, who said she is "passionate" about the extended day, said that a 30-minute expansion is not long enough and that extra time is meaningful only if it is accompanied by good teaching.
"Extending the day a half an hour is a step in the right direction, but it will not get you the results you need," she said.
Expense is a huge issue. Schaeffler estimated that it costs an extra $950 per student - over and above what KIPP charters receive from the District in the annual per-pupil funding formula - to underwrite their extended day, plus summer and Saturday programs. The gap is filled by private fundraising, although Schaeffler says the city should adjust the funding formula to support schools with longer days.
It means that to bring a KIPP-size school day to D.C. public schools would cost an additional $42 million a year.
An extra 30 minutes would be less costly. Cheh said that the District's existing collective bargaining agreements with teachers, custodians and office staff could allow for a seven-hour school day because the contracts require them to be at school for at least 71/2 hours.
The city's pact with the Washington Teachers' Union specifies "7.5 consecutive hours beginning no earlier than 7:30 a.m. and ending no later than 4:30 p.m."
Teachers union President George Parker is cool to the idea, saying that it would cut into time that teachers need to plan and collaborate. Most importantly, he said, the city needs to focus on more effective use of the available instructional time, which is often consumed by disciplinary issues.
"You can get 25 percent more time by being serious about discipline," Parker said, contending that administrators in many schools have failed to support teachers in removing persistently disruptive students from class.
Not all teachers agree with Parker. "An extra 10 minutes in each of my three reading classes would actually help quite a bit," said Maria Samenga, who teaches fourth grade at Harriet Tubman Elementary in Ward 1 and was honored last week with one of the District's Excellence in Teaching awards.
Steve Dingledine, a fifth-grade teacher at Stoddert Elementary in Ward 3 and one of the city's "highly effective" educators as assessed by the IMPACT evaluation system, said he'd support an extended day if it were used for more physical education and teacher planning time. "The kids have got to get more play in to balance the rigorous instruction, and teachers need more time to organize content and delivery," he said.
Marcie Bane, a parent with two children at Shepherd Elementary in Ward 4, said she welcomed the longer day.
"I would view it as a very positive thing," she said. "With all the testing pressures, an extra 30 minutes at the end of the day would be very useful."