(Photo by Susan Hersh, under CC license.)
(Photo by Susan Hersh, under CC license.)
(Photo by Susan Hersh, under CC license.)

By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, an old idea is being resurrected in hopes of narrowing the education gap between Blacks and Whites – expanding the school day.

“By sixth grade, low-income students have a 6,000 hour learning gap over the course of their lifetime, accounting for these field trips, and summer learning opportunities. That’s an incredible deficit that our low-income students are trying to go through school with,” said Christopher Caruso, senior vice president of ExpandED Schools at The After-School Corporation (TASC),  a non-profit policy and advocacy organization.

“If your day is limited to St. Nicholas Avenue and Lenox Avenue in Harlem [New York], or a six-block radius for 15 years, you don’t have that experience, that vocabulary. So the amount of work that you have to do to show competency in testing, is tremendous.”

The idea that more time fosters academic achievement has been around almost as long as public education has. Today, ELT is aimed at closing the opportunity gap and saving underperforming schools. The theory is that if there were more time in the school day, under-resourced schools could provide the same rich experiences, in-depth lessons, and extra tutoring that middle- and upper-class students receive. Allowing more time for these perks during school hours ensures that all students receive them.

“It’s not that schools haven’t worked with students in the past to help them catch up, but…usually you would tackle that in an after-school venue,” says Barbara Pulliam Davis, superintendent of the Greene County School District in Greensboro, Ga. “With extended learning time, because it’s part of the school day, every student gets to participate. There’s no ‘I can’t stay late because my mom wants me home.’”

ELT schools and districts devise a daily schedule or calendar year that adds hours or days to the traditional one. School years are usually elongated by shortening summer vacation, or adding Saturday instruction. School days are extended by combining a variety of tactics, such as: beginning the school day earlier; adding extra blocks of time throughout the day for non-traditional learning; minimizing transitions and other non-instructional moments, and more.

Every school custom builds their program, drawing on best practices at other schools and their own school community’s needs.

Schools generally use this additional time in four ways: remediation for students who need it; advanced lessons and projects for above-average students; peer-development and creative lesson-planning time for teachers; and/or enrichment activities for students. Particularly in the case of enrichment activities, schools partner with organizations, businesses, and individuals to offer a range of engaging, fun activities to students.

For example, students at Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in New York City create their own public art exhibits and visit cultural gems such as the Museum of Modern Art, thanks to a partnership with arts education organization, Doing Art Together.

“A lot of upper- and middle-income families find ways to put opportunities in front of their children. There’s a whole cottage industry for upper- and middle-income kids that’s driving the opportunity gap, and low-income families don’t have the resources to pay for that,” Caruso explains. “There’s a lot of data that says two-thirds of the achievement gap is a difference of access to those opportunities. But we’re not going to hold back upper- and middle-income families, we have to lift up lower-income families.”

ELT is also used as a “turnaround” method for schools that are doing poorly academically, as measured by state and federal exams. Greene County High School in Georgia, for example, has seen improvement among its students since the district adopted an “increased learning time” schedule.

“It gives us time to time to really focus on the students. So many times we have schools where students are credit-rich but content-poor,”  says Ray Hill, Greene County High School principal. As evidence of the program’s success, he cites his students’ performance on the Georgia High School Writing Test, a statewide exam introduced in 2011. After using extended time to prepare for the exam, 94 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on the first try.

He explains, “Once the kids understood it was something that would help them, we got more buy-in from them. It also did improve the self-esteem of certain kids, because they started to realize they could ‘get it’ with a little more help.”

There are more than 1,000 schools across the country that have voluntarily switched to ELT schedules, most of which are public schools. In the case of Greene County (and many others), schools construct an ELT program to comply with Department of Education grants they receive.

Aligning with federal policy in this way mitigates one of the criticisms of extended learning — its high cost.

For starters, extending the school year (as opposed to the length of a school day) means added costs to run the building longer. Enriching activities such as dance and robotics are also costly (without a generous community partner). Then, there is the tricky task of paying teachers for the additional time, while honoring contractual caps on the number of hours worked.

For rural school districts, finding community partners can be difficult. When there aren’t enough partners nearby, or if those partners are less inclined to offer pro bono services over time, schools cannot afford to fill the extra time in a meaningful way. Rural districts also have to convince school bus companies to adopt the same new schedule.

Experts agree that potential ELT success does not lie in the time itself—it’s how the time is used, and whether the program is structured and in line with the school’s particular goals and weaknesses.

“It’s not just packing an extra hour or two in the school day when what you do with the extra time supports the vision of the school overall,” says Jessica Cardichon, director of federal advocacy for the Alliance of Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization for effective high school reform. “It’s not more time to do more of the same things. It’s time to expose students to different experiences and opportunities, and to enhance different skills that they might not have otherwise been exposed to before.”


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