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District considers longer school day

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010

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.

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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.

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