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Middle School Gets Creative to Meet District's Mandate for Longer Day

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By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

A Maryland middle school is taking a recent mandate for a longer school day and using the time for students and teachers to explore individual interests. Instead of additional learning in standard subjects, students are now getting hands-on learning in everything from computer programming to hip-hop.

The Prince George's County district mandated an additional 40 minutes of class time for the district's middle school students beginning with the 2012-2013 school year, intended as a way for students slipping behind to receive extra academic help.

The almost 900-student Buck Lodge Middle School, though, decided to go in a slightly different direction. After using the 40 minutes as purely instructional time, school officials found that it wasn't having the desired effect on student learning. After seeing a recent article in The Gazette newspaper about the situation, I decided to call the school myself.

"What we found was students were just not taking it seriously. Students weren't as engaged," Principal James Richardson told me in an interview this week. "It just became like a study hall after the second quarter."

Now, the school is using its extra 40 minutes to offer more enrichment-focused learning, giving students and teachers alike an opportunity to explore their individual interests.

When selecting classes each semester, students indicate their top ten enrichment choices and are then placed into one for the semester. The classes are not only led, but are developed, by Buck Lodge's teachers, and include everything from an engineering course, where students created working models of amusement park rides, to sports and fitness classes, to poetry and art classes.

"There's such a wide range of classes," said Richardson. "Teachers are really creative with the types of activities we have. Kids are engaged at a totally different level. It's more like personalized learning."

The implementation of the enrichment time also coincides with a rise in test scores, with the principal saying he sees a connection between that rise and the new offerings. Last year, the first year that the school added its enrichment blocks, proficiency in state reading assessments jumped from 70 to almost 75 percent. Math proficiency also increased almost five percentage points, from 60 to 65.

But the benefits haven't just been academic, he said. The principal also notes that suspensions and other problems with behavior have gone down.

"If you look at the learning culture of the building, kids are really excited," said Richardson. "They're doing some phenomenal things."

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