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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 / June 14, 2007



Malden, Mass.

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.

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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.

"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."

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