When Nancy Mullen took over as principal at Matthew J. Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Massachusetts, three years ago, she found it a somber place.
Labeled as chronically under-performing under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, all electives had been stripped away to make more time for reading and math drills in an effort to boost state test scores.
“If a school could be depressed, it was,” Mullen told Education World. “But teachers impressed upon me that they wanted to turn the school around.”
Last year, Kuss was selected as one of ten schools in the state to implement a longer school day as part of the Expanded Learning Time Initiative. Now in its second year in the program, attendance is up, tardiness is down, and students are engaged in electives during the day that include band, chorus, robotics, and martial arts.
While it is too soon to know if test scores have improved, Mullen said she can see a difference in the school’s atmosphere. “If you ask me if it is working in terms of climate, suspensions, and lateness, it’s better than expected,” she said.
The search for time
Schools like Kuss soon could be the norm rather than the exception. In another decade or so, the six-and-a-half-hour day and the 180-day year could be as absent from schools as quill pens and black slates. Schools across the U.S. — especially those with high-needs, low-income populations — are finding they just don’t have the time in a typical day to do much more than prepare students for high-stakes tests in reading and math. Many already have eliminated or cut back instructional time in non-tested subjects such as social studies, art, and music, and still can’t find enough minutes in the day. Some have turned to before — and after-school programs to offer remedial help or elective-type courses, but those don’t reach all students.
The solution for some districts and states has been to extend the school day and/or school year — at least for schools that are struggling.
“The current school calendar is not cutting it,” said Elena Rocha, a senior education analyst with the Center for American Progress, who has researched the issue of extended school days.
“We’re looking at expanded learning time as a way to boost achievement and make adequate yearly progress (AYP),” Rocha continued. “More time can help all students, but it is particularly important for low-income, high-poverty schools. If you want to catch up kids who are four grades behind, you need more time.”
The National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has no official position on longer school days, and is letting affiliates handle the issue as it comes up, said Barbara Kapinus, a senior policy analyst for the association.
“Clearly, there is a problem with narrowing the curriculum,” Kapinus said. “This is one way to address the problem and maybe come out with schools that are even better. I think every child should have a right to a complete curriculum. Teachers often are happy to put in more hours if it means getting more time with students. There is just not enough time in the day.”
She added, though, that if teachers are going to work longer hours, their pay needs to reflect that. “I think, in their heart of hearts, there is not a teacher who wouldn’t want a child to have the fullest possible education,” Kapinus said. “But any plan that extends the amount of class time needs to be compensated. It’s important for administrators to work with teachers to see how it works.”
Extended learning time advocates also cite the success of charter schools, many of which have longer school days, in helping low-income and minority students excel. Studying charter schools led to “an interest in extended learning time and research into how it can be implemented and be most effective,” Rocha said.
“We looked at charter schools and saw success with longer days,” said Chris Gabrieli, chairman and co-founder of Massachusetts 2020. “Charter schools such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) demonstrate nice gains, and charter schools are able to offer core academics and a well-rounded education.”
Massachusetts 2020 researches approaches to learning that go beyond the usual school day and year. Gabrieli said he and his co-founder came to believe that schools needed more focus on time, and not just in the traditional sense. “If you raise standards, you pretty much need more time,” Gabrieli told Education World. “If you get kids more time, they can do the basics and still get a well-rounded education.”
The group’s research focuses on ways to implement expanded school days and craft effective after-school and summer programs. Staff members also work with administrators who want to redesign their school schedules to create more instructional time.
“Initially, we worked to help expand after-school programs. But if a terrific after-school program helps 15 or 20 kids who stay, why not offer it to all students?” Gabrieli said. “We wanted to reach all students.”
Not just more of the same
One of the keys to successfully implementing a longer school day and year, experts said, is planning to ensure that time is used to enrich the curriculum, and not just on more drill-and-kill.
To be considered for Massachusetts’ Expanded Learning Time Initiative for struggling schools, applicants had to agree to extend the school year by 25 percent, which they could do by extending the school day. They also had to submit a description of what the extended day or year would look like.
“We wanted to see how they were going to use the time. If they were just going to lecture longer, we were not interested,” Heidi Guarino, chief of staff of the state’s department of education, told Education World.
The state allocated $13 million for the program this year. Currently, 19 schools are participating, including Kuss Middle School.
At Kuss, the expanded day means students now have time for electives such as ham radio, forensics, band, chorus, robotics, and martial arts, which are spread throughout the day. Teachers had to sketch out in advance their plans for electives and how they would use the extra time. “Unless you find a way to change instruction, nothing changes,” Mullen noted.
“We feel adding time to the school day will have positive results for kids,” Guarino added. “Kids spend more time on task, have more time for projects, and more time for hands-on learning.”
All the schools that received grants have been able to restore programs they previously had eliminated, like art, music, and other subjects that engage students, according to Gabrieli.
“Expanded learning time is absolutely a way to expand the curriculum to get enrichment into the curriculum,” added Rocha.
How it works
Still, even with advance planning, some schedules still needed tweaking. “Last year, we tacked on classes at the end of the school day, so kids viewed it as separate from the regular school day,” said Mullen. “Our overall goal was to do better on state testing.”
This year, classes run from 7:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and electives are integrated into the school day. “The goal this year was to make the extension of the school day seamless,” Mullen noted.
Administrators were able to add ten periods a week to the schedule. Students quickly adjusted to the new routine. “We were surprised to find that the kids love it,” she said. “They are enthralled with the variety of classes and electives, especially in science.”
In other parts of the country, districts have established separate programs and guidelines for struggling schools. The Miami-Dade County Public Schools superintendent created a School Improvement Zone three years ago that includes 39 schools with extended school days and years.
Schools were chosen for the zone based on low academic performance over three years, feeder patterns in which low performance is widespread, and leadership capacity, according to the district.
The school day for those in the zone is an hour longer, except for one day a week when students are dismissed earlier to allow teachers to participate in professional development. The instructional program also includes new courses, enrichment activities, test preparation courses, and internships for students to gain work experience, according to information from the district.
Support personnel work with pre-kindergarten-through-second-grade students with poorly developed reading and writing skills, third graders who were held back, and students moving into sixth and ninth grades.
Goals for the schools are revised and adjusted each year based on strategic planning. “The overall goal is for all students to achieve a proficiency level through a strong literacy- based learning program,” said Quintin Taylor, a spokesman for the district.
All of the zone schools have made gains on the state’s standardized tests, Taylor added.
Dr. Jean Teal, principal of Miami Edison Senior High School, a zone school, said Edison has moved up two grades in the state’s school ratings since extending its day.
“We have a heavy emphasis on reading, language arts, and math,” Dr. Teal told Education World. “We have made great progress in student learning gains.” Students take four classes a day broken down into 100-minute blocks. “We have more time on task and more time to maximize learning opportunities,” she said. “We do a lot of project-based learning.”
Edison is a career academy, which means students in tenth grade select from one of four career areas: business and finance, communication and digital technology, law and public service, and medical and health. Students graduate prepared to enter the workforce or go on to college.
The Improvement Zone program, though, is scheduled to end next year. Next year, with the zone and extended hours gone, staff members plan to schedule an hour at the end of the school day for tutorials and differentiated instruction to make up for the lost time during the school day, Dr. Teal said.
"Time flies so fast"
A similar program was launched by the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Public Schools last year. At that time, district administrators closed about 30 mostly low-performing schools and moved the students to other schools.
School officials then added ten more days to the academic years at eight of its lowest-performing schools and at least 45 more minutes to their school days. One of those extended-day schools, Fort Pitt Accelerated Learning Academy, a pre-K-to-grade five school, had been making AYP before it was combined with another school that was not performing as well, said its principal, Verna Arnold. Fort Pitt’s population went from 280 students two years ago to about 400 now, she said.
“Because we have so many new students, we’re considered a new school,” Arnold told Education World. “Last year was considered a baseline.”
The school gained an hour of instructional time, and the school day now is seven hours and 25 minutes long, starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 3:25 p.m.
“But the time flies so fast, it doesn’t feel like we’ve added an hour,” Arnold said.
Much of the additional time is used for differentiated instruction. For 35 minutes before the first and second lunch periods, all students are grouped according to ability and teachers help with small group instruction. Specialty teachers and paraprofessionals assist as well.
Fort Pitt started school eight days earlier than others in the district and staff members used the time to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses. “We were able to group students immediately,” Arnold said. Teachers also established routines and rituals. The school year will end two days later than other schools.
The program for the eight schools includes high expectations, structured routines, and performance-based accountability for principals, said Ebony Pugh, a spokeswoman for the district. “We’re looking to increase instructional time in more schools,” she added.
"Time is our enemy"
In Rhode Island, state officials announced that all schools needed to expand the number of instructional minutes.
At Portsmouth (Rhode Island) Middle School, considered by the state a high-performing school, that meant adding an extra 30 minutes to the day, for a total of seven hours.
“Seven is better than six- and-a-half; I’d like to see even more,” principal Joseph Amaral said. “Time is our enemy.”
The school added 15 minutes additional instructional time in math, reading, and writing.
“Educationally, the faculty believes it is a good thing, because it allows for some common planning time and embedded professional development,” Amaral said about the slightly longer day. “It improved the ability of teachers to coordinate with each other.”
Two of the biggest obstacles to overcome in changing the school day and year are inertia and funding, said Gabrieli.
“The school day has pretty much been standard at 180 days, 6.5 hours,” he said. “First, you have to convince people to change their mindset. It’s easiest to do what you did last year. The second obstacle is money. You have to make a commitment to spending.” For the 19 Massachusetts schools with extended days, the state is spending an additional $1,300 per year per pupil.
“Teacher compensation is a big issue, as is professional development and working with providers of enrichment and instruction so kids have well-rounded experiences,” added Rocha.
All of the school officials with whom Education World talked said teachers received extra compensation for working more hours. Staff members who work in the Miami-Dade County School Improvement Zone are paid for the additional hours they put in as specified in the union contract, and it comes to about 20 percent more, Taylor said.
Mullen, principal of Kuss Middle School, said the increased pay has led to an increase in applications. “It has really helped with recruiting teachers,” she said. “It’s a 25 percent longer day, so they get 25 percent more pay. The average starting salary here is $38,000 — another 25 percent adds a lot to that.”
Getting community members and teachers behind the plan also is critical to implementing a longer day, researchers said. “This [initiative] needs to come from the community &nmash; not every community is open to it,” said Guarino of the Massachusetts department of education.
District officials also have to be mindful of staff and community concerns and make adjustments if necessary. “Initially, parents and teachers were concerned about the longer school day,” said Arnold of Fort Pitt. “Both were concerned about stamina and parents worried about children getting out late.”
“Everyone has adjusted,” she added.
In its first year as an extended-learning-time school last year, the day at Kuss was expanded by almost two hours. The school dismissal time was moved from 2:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. four days a week, and school started at 7:15 a.m. School was dismissed at 2:30 on one day for teachers to participate in professional development. But the day proved too long for many teachers and students, so this year the school shifted to a 3:30 p.m. dismissal time five days a week. “It seems to be less draining for teachers,” Mullen said.
In communities where extended days have been introduced, students and parents for the most part have embraced the new schedules, added Gabrieli of Massachusetts 2020.
Encouraged by expanded-day programs on the state and local levels, Gabrieli and groups such as the Center for American Progress are hoping to push the issue at the national level.
“We’ve worked closely with Massachusetts 2020, now we are trying to bring the Massachusetts program to national attention,” said Rocha of the Center for American Progress. “I see it taking hold. In the last two years I have seen significant attention to this issue. We’ve been on it for four years, and we’re starting to head toward change.”