A Program of Promise That Really Delivers

An extended-learning program in one of Boston's inner-city schools has improved math and reading test scores, and attendance rates

IN between periods at the James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury, Mass., students are told to walk SFQ (single file quietly) to their next classes. This day, however, they are managing a single line but not without a few giggles and playful shoves.

Timilty students can't be entirely blamed for their restlessness. Four days each week, they spend an additional 90 minutes in classes compared with other Boston public-school students. In an extended-learning program called Project Promise, students get an added dosage of academics and attention.

This is a school with a different approach to public urban education. Set in the middle of a low-income neighborhood in Boston's minority community, Timilty offers a ray of hope for Boston's inner-city school children. Besides its extended-day program, the school offers an antiviolence program, a comprehensive academics curriculum, and a dedicated teaching staff.

``We try to make learning fun,'' says Timilty Principal Roger Harris. ``I insist that teachers be creative and that students experience success.''

In 1989, it was cited by the United States Education Department as being an exemplary school and has received several local, state, and national awards in recent years.

Back in the early 1980s, Timilty was considered one of the worst public schools in Boston.

With its high suspension rates and low test scores, it was labeled an overall low-achieving city school.

But since Project Promise began in 1987, attendance rates have gone up, math and reading test scores have improved, and the suspension rate has decreased dramatically.

Timilty is a citywide magnet school, which means it is open to any Boston public-school student. It has an ethnically diverse population of 529 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, with most students coming from low-income families.

Under Boston's school-choice plan, Timilty is the most frequently selected middle school in the city, Harris says.

Parents say they like what Timilty has to offer.

``Academically, I am very happy with the program,'' says Natalie Carithers, a parent and co-chair of the Timilty School parents council. ``Last year my son was in the sixth grade and I had a problem getting him to study. Now, when I come home from work, he is already studying, and he is studying all the way until his homework is due. That is being instilled through the Timilty,'' Ms. Carithers says.

Academics are highly valued here, and the key to learning is developing good writing and reading skills.

Students must do writing assignments for all classes and are expected to submit seven writing projects per month, Harris says.

The class day ends with DEAR (Drop Everything And Read), a 15-minute silent-reading period participated in by the entire school.

Students also participate in a unique pen-pal program, called Promising Pals. Youngsters write at least four letters over a three-month period to a variety of people in the Boston community who have interesting careers. Students and their adult ``pals'' meet for the first time at a breakfast reception in the spring.

The school's antiviolence program helps youngsters cope with their surroundings. In 1990, the school declared itself a ``violence-free zone'' and has since initiated several programs to teach students nonviolent attitudes.

But the school is most widely known for its extended-day program. Creating longer school days or school years is not a new idea, and many US schools are now doing it. At Timilty, the additional time is used for one extra reading and math class per day.

Timilty students - though occasionally teased by students who attend schools with regular class hours - don't seem to mind spending an additional 1-1/2 hours per day in school.

``I think we get to learn more and the teachers make it more fun,'' says Massie Lle, a sixth grader.

Longer school days not only provide additional teaching time but also help out working parents, says Maria Madrona, a member of the Timilty School parent council. Young middle-school students, especially, need supervision, she says.

``If [regular] middle schools let children out at 1:00 p.m. and parents work until 4:30 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. ... these kids have four hours on their own,'' Ms. Madrona says. ``They are not 16 years old. We are talking about 11-, 12-, and 13-year olds.''

English teacher Bob Sweeney says the added time allows him to devote more attention to individual students. He points to a pupil's essay, covered with red correction marks as an example of the effort he has put into helping a Chinese-American student write English papers.

``She has a Chinese background, and I'm her English teacher. She is a very ambitious student,'' he says. ``And Project Promise allows me to give her this individual attention.''

STARTING the Timilty's extended-day program wasn't easy. Teachers objected to working longer hours. City officials objected to its high cost. And at one point, in 1990, the Project Promise program was in danger of being cut. In the end, only the school's Saturday program was eliminated.

``We have a model here, a formula that works for urban education. But it costs,'' Harris says.

In fact, teachers work two hours longer per day than other public-school teachers, but they are paid approximately $9,000 more per year than other Boston teachers.

The cost continues to be a subject of debate. Anne Wheelock, a Boston-based author of middle-school education books, applauds the caring atmosphere at Timilty, but says student test scores aren't as high as they could be. While sixth graders tend to do well on tests, by the eighth grade their math and reading test scores have gone down noticeably.

``There is a great deal of energy and thought invested in the idea of the extended [day], and there is less attention to helping teachers adopt the most powerful teaching and learning strategies that can work with urban kids,'' Ms. Wheelock says. ``I would prefer that money be spent on very serious long-term professional development, tied to expected outcomes.''

Meanwhile, public and private schools continue to explore different ways to increase learning time in school.

Harold Howe II, lecturer at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, agrees that longer school days and years will mean greater costs. But both teachers and students will benefit from these programs, he says.

``Kids needs more enrichment in their lives than they can get from 8:00 in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon,'' Mr. Howe says. ``The time used in a day for regular public schools is too short and jammed up with activities in a way that means some very important things get left out.''

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