From: The New York Times
August 5, 2012
To Increase Learning Time, Some Schools Add Days to Academic Year
By MOTOKO RICH
PHOENIX — It was the last Sunday in July, and Bethany and Garvin Phillips were pulling price tags off brand-new backpacks and stuffing them with binders and pencils.
While other children around the country readied for beach vacations or the last weeks of summer camp, Bethany, 11, and Garvin, 9, were preparing for the first day of the new school year at Griffith Elementary, just six weeks after the start of their summer vacation.
Griffith, one of five schools in the Balsz Elementary School District here, is one of a handful of public schools across the country that has lengthened the school year in an effort to increase learning time.
A typical public school calendar is 180 days, but the Balsz district, where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, is in session for 200 days, adding about a month to the academic year.
According to the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit research group in Boston, about 170 schools — more than 140 of them charter schools — across the country have extended their calendars in recent years to 190 days or longer.
Neither Bethany, who plans to run for student council president, nor Garvin, who was excited about his fourth-grade teacher, seemed bothered by the change. “The kids’ education is more important than all of these breaks that we have,” said their mother, Debra Phillips.
A growing group of education advocates is agitating for more time in schools, arguing that low-income children in particular need more time to catch up as schools face increasing pressure to improve student test scores.
“It’s not as simple as ‘Oh, if we just went 12 hours every kid would be Einstein,’ ” said Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Boston group. “On the other hand, the more time you spend practicing or preparing to do something, the better you get at it.”
Education advocates have been calling for more school time at least since the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report presented an apocalyptic vision of American education.
Teachers’ unions, parents who want to preserve summers for family vacations and those who worry that children already come under too much academic stress argue that extended school time is not the answer. Research on longer school days or years also shows mixed results.
But studies also show that during the summer break, students — particularly those from low-income families — tend to forget what they learned in the school year. Getting back to school early, supporters of a longer calendar say, is one of the best ways to narrow an achievement gap between rich and poor students.
Many charter schools, including those in the academically successful KIPP network, attribute their achievement in part to longer days and calendars. President Obama has repeatedly promoted expanded school time, even inspiring “Saturday Night Live” to poke fun, with Seth Meyers saying in his Weekend Update segment that only “Catherine, the fifth grader nobody likes,” would support such a proposal.
Within the last two years, both the Ford Foundation and the Wallace Foundation have made multimillion dollar commitments to help nonprofit groups work with school districts to restructure the school day and year.
Advocates of longer school years say that the 180-day school year is an outdated artifact.
“The fact that our calendar has been based on the agrarian economy when almost none of our kids work in the field anymore,” said Arne Duncan, secretary of education, “doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
Yet several recent efforts to lengthen the school calendar have foundered. The Woodland Hills Academy in Pittsburgh extended its school year to 195 days in 2009, but this year it will return to the traditional 180-day calendar because of state budget cuts. Similarly, Parkside Elementary in Coral Springs, Fla., tried a 200-day calendar for one year before abandoning it because of insufficient financing.
Last year, legislators in Arkansas and New Mexico introduced bills to institute a 200-day school calendar, but both stalled. In Iowa, after Gov. Terry E. Branstad discussed the possibility of lengthening the school year at several town-hall-style meetings, protesters prompted the state to convene a study group to examine the issue.
Critics say that with so many schools already failing, giving them more time would do little to help students.
“It is true that we have an unfair society, and it is true that kids who are coming from the poorer backgrounds and whose parents don’t do a lot of reading are losing reading skills over the summer,” said Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College. “But let’s look at other solutions.” He added, “Whatever job we give to the school system, they ruin it.”
Advocates say that schools need to plan carefully how they will use the extra time. Some say that adding the kinds of art, music and other activities that more affluent students typically get outside school is as important as beefing up academics. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the teachers’ union have been battling over his plan to lengthen the school day; an agreement was reached last month when the school district agreed to hire back teachers for more enrichment programs rather than simply forcing classroom teachers to work longer hours.
“Better is as important as the more,” said Jeannie Oakes, director of educational opportunity and scholarship programs at the Ford Foundation.
When Jeffrey Smith, superintendent of the Balsz district, arrived in 2008, he inherited a district where two of the five schools had been rated underperforming for several years running and the district was at risk of being taken over by the state.
With the recession pinching state and local budgets, Mr. Smith seized on an Arizona law that gave an additional 5 percent of state financing to districts that added 20 days to the school year.
While many parents supported the initiative, some teachers resisted, worried that they would not receive enough extra pay to compensate for the additional time. The school board voted in 2009 to extend the year, and with the additional state financing and a local property tax increase, the district raised teacher salaries by 9 percent.
Since the district transitioned to the longer calendar, the proportion of students passing state reading tests has gone to 65 percent from 51 percent, and math scores are also improving.
Some teachers say that it is a new curriculum, targeted tutoring and two hours of professional development a week, as much as the extra days, that have helped raise achievement.
“Quantity is great, if you have the quality to back it up,” said Kathleen Puryear, a 20-year veteran fourth-grade teacher.
The district has lost several teachers since the longer school year began. At Griffith, Alexis Wilson, the principal, said 10 out of 23 classroom teachers retired or resigned last year, some citing the 200-day schedule.
Given the choice, many children would also rather be out playing than sitting behind a desk. But Riziki Gloria, a fifth grader at David Crockett Elementary, a Balsz school that serves many refugees and homeless children, said that she was keen to get back to school. “Sometimes summer is really boring,” she said. “We just sit there and watch TV.”
Outside Griffith Elementary early last Monday morning, children and their parents arrived early, eager to start. Sheena Padia said she had chosen to send her sons Isaiah and Elias Mercado to Griffith even though they live outside the district, in part because of the 200-day calendar.
“I love it because it is more education for them,” said Ms. Padia, as Isaiah, 7, showed off new black-and-white Adidas sneakers and Elias, 5, brandished a mechanical pencil.
The shorter summer break seemed to help the students adjust quickly to being back in school. After the morning Pledge of Allegiance, Ms. Puryear’s fourth graders easily recited the school’s mantra: “No one has the right to interfere with the learning, safety or well-being of others.”
Down the hall, Sarah Ravel used the morning to review school disciplinary codes, and she played get-to-know-you games with her new sixth graders. By afternoon, it was down to schoolwork as she handed out a math review sheet.
Ms. Ravel sat at the front of the class, her left hand magnified to several times its size as she projected the work sheet onto a digital white board. Hands shot into the air, waving urgently. The class had hit a tricky problem: subtract 2 hours and 45 minutes from 5 hours and 20 minutes. Ms. Ravel carefully explained how to work out the solution.
“If you are not comfortable with that, know that we are going to do one of those every day for the next 200 days,” she said. “I guess I should say the next 199 days,” she amended. “So we are going to get really comfortable.”