Do longer hours equal more learning?

Pressured to produce better students, 10 Massachusetts public schools pack more hours into their schedules.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's a typical "Wacky Wednesday" at Salemwood School in Malden, Mass. That's Principal Ron Eckel's affectionate and slightly exasperated term for a weekly cycle of enrichment classes. In the afternoon, various sets of teachers gather for collaborative planning while their colleagues and some community partners offer classes that combine fun hobbies and academic skills – everything from gymnastics to math games to stitching folk-art Penny rugs.

It's only possible because the 1,200 students at this K-8 school spend nearly two more hours a day here than they did last year. Salemwood is one of the pioneers in an unprecedented statewide initiative – and a nascent national trend – to extend the public school day.

The pressure for schools to boost student achievement has prompted increasing numbers of education reformers to eye longer school days or years.

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"We feel the country needs to move in this direction.... Nobody is saying the agrarian schedule of 180 days, 6-1/2 hours a day is the right schedule anymore," says Jennifer Davis, president of Massachusetts 2020, a nonprofit that helped develop the program that 10 schools have been piloting this school year. "We've put in place higher standards, we have a much deeper curriculum, and yet we haven't changed the schedule [for most public schools]. It really doesn't make any sense."

Improving education isn't just a matter of tacking on more time, Ms. Davis and others caution. But if it's used to make room for better teaching methods, it could help close achievement gaps and make school more rewarding for all students.

In Massachusetts, competitive grants of $1,300 per student are given to schools that redesign their schedules to add at least 25 to 30 percent more time. The plans must include extra instruction in core subjects like reading and math, enrichment classes, and professional development for teachers. Support from unions, parents, and community groups are essential as well. Some preference is given to schools with a high incidence of poverty.

If the change required consensus from the kids, it might never have happened. At Salemwood, the extended-day schedule has both avid fans and sleepy naysayers.

"I can barely make it till 1 o'clock!" exclaims fifth-grader Shawn Walsh, shaking his head in disapproval.

A number of students share his nostalgia for time outside hanging with friends. But many other students say their classes are more fun now. His classmate, Yaritza Cajiao, says she likes having extra time for gym, computer class, and homework help. "My grades are getting way better ... and my mom's really proud of me because I pay attention in class more," she says. "I used to ask her for a lot of help, but with the longer day I can ask my teachers."

Students now have 90 minutes of math every day (two extra hours a week compared with last year), and 120 minutes of English Language Arts (one extra hour a week). The first few months were a big adjustment, but teachers say it's been a good move.

Minilessons help break up time

"People initially panicked at the 90-minute [blocks]," says special-education teacher Sandra Carreiro. Everyone learned quickly to break that time into minilessons, weaving in experiences that drive the concepts home. In a recent fifth-grade math class that she coteaches, students were outside flying paper airplanes – charting distances, analyzing design elements, and remaking the planes to outfly the class record.

What the teachers have done with longer classes has been "immensely powerful," says Principal Eckel. "I was so used to seeing in a 45-minute class ... such a frantic pace, such a rush." Now, "the depth and breadth [means] kids are much more prepared to go home knowing what they're to do as follow up.... I can't help but believe that over time that's going to lead to better achievement, more well-rounded students."

Because there's time for project-based learning and collaboration, teachers in pilot schools throughout the state were "shocked" at how satisfying it was to teach a longer day, says Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. All teachers are paid for the additional time.

Of the more than 100 teachers and staff at Salemwood, just three opted to transfer to other schools before the start of the new schedule in 2006-07, Eckel says.

Parents are solidly behind the change as well. Fifty families transferred their children last year, but 70 others enrolled. Of the parents surveyed by Massachusetts 2020 at three of the pilot schools, 77 percent said their child was doing better in school as a result of the expanded schedule.

Mary Shank is one of those true believers. "It gives us extra time to get home from working," she says, waiting outside to pick up her kids as a choral class rehearses on the steps. "My son is developmentally delayed, and he's doing awesome now. He's willing to do homework when you ask him, and he's not having as many troubles."

That's not to say the extended day has been easy for everyone, or universally accepted.

Salemwood assistant Principal Phyllis Bran­dano noticed a slight uptick in behavioral problems. "It's a long day for a 6-year-old, let's just face it." Next year, the school will end at 3:15 instead of 3:30, to give teachers time to offer makeup tests or hold students after school for disciplinary infractions.

Some towns that considered extending school days couldn't reach consensus with parents or unions. Concerns ranged from loss of after-school sports or family time to logistical issues such as having children going home on dark winter afternoons. A mother who visited Salemwood with a team of visitors from Southbridge, Mass., to explore the idea of expanding their school day expressed skepticism. She leaned toward feeling that it's a family's responsibility to take advantage of opportunities for after-school enrichment, and she wondered why her daughter should have to stay extra hours because other students are behind academically.

But the potential benefits have sparked the interest of more than 80 schools in Massachusetts, and they're putting together plans for lengthening their days in 2008-09.

Shifting away from the schedule that has pervaded US schools since the 1960s isn't new. In the 1980s, the landmark report "A Nation at Risk" raised the idea of extending the school day. Another push came in 1994 with the report "Prisoners of Time."

'Buy in' is critical to schedule success

Massachusetts is leading the way this time and is poised to double the grant budget to $13 million for next year. But a number of states, districts, and schools – from Connecticut to New Mexico – have also considered or implemented longer schedules.

There's no guarantee that the momentum will yield widespread change, but the prospects are stronger than they've ever been, says Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector in Washington, who recently examined how schools use time. Expanding learning time is advocated by the $60 million Strong American Schools campaign launched by the Gates and Broad foundations and a variety of such proposals are in the works on Capitol Hill, as well.

"At its core, it's a good idea," Ms. Silva says by phone. "My biggest concern with it is that people will not plan it well.... Without the buy-in from teachers and their community, it's not going to be very successful." She hopes that well-designed programs will be supported long enough (five to 10 years) to yield solid data on what's effective.

After a year of working out the kinks, Eckel has offered some advice to interested districts. The scheduling shifts require complex planning, he says, and his school will be making tweaks for next year. For one thing, he'll spread the enrichment classes throughout the week, he says, "so we won't have one 'Wacky Wednesday' where the world turns upside down."

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