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Schools With Federal Grants Want Local Control to Meet Expanded Learning Goals

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Expanded learning time has been getting a lot of attention and money in recent years, but there's no consistency in what it looks like or how it's implemented, and that's a good thing, according to a new report from the Center on Education Policy.

The center, based at George Washington University in Washington, studied 17 low-performing schools with federal School Improvement Grants requring them to increase learning time, and found that, while there are similarities, especially in the challenges schools face, each is uniquely tailored to meet local needs and resources, said Jennifer McMurrer, the center's director of research and a co-author of the report, in a phone call with Education Week.

Costs, how far students have to travel to get to school, union contracts, and the ability to partner with community organizations all pushed districts to be innovative in their approach to expanding learning time. 

"They each have a different story to tell.  For me, that was the real takeaway," McMurrer said. "There's not a rigid blueprint for implementing ELT, so one of the great values of our case studies is highlighting and showing the very different ways that schools and districts are going about this work."

Schools profiled in the case studies have an additional layer of expanded learning time responsibilities and opportunities because they're located in four states with waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act —Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon, and Virginia—that allow them to use funds from 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants, which are designated for before- and after-school programs, to increase learning time within the regular school day.

The federal regulations in the waivers and federal school improvement program served a valuable function in encouraging schools to be innovative and strategic in their use of time, but until now, no one has looked at the "ins and outs and the mechanics of how these programs actually work for states and districts and schools," CEP Executive Director Maria Voles Ferguson told Education Week
An elementary school in Connecticut [the report does not use actual school or district names] that couldn't afford to pay teachers more to work a longer day still expanded the school day from 6.5 to 8.5 hours by staggering teachers' schedules. The school also developed partnerships with community organizations to provide enrichment activities and academic support classes for students in the early mornings and late afternoons when the fewest teachers were on campus.

A school in Oregon, on the other hand, used its school improvement grant funds to increase teachers' salaries so it could add half an hour to the school day.  After initially designating that extra time for students most in need of academic support, the school later expanded the extended day to include all students.

"Our focus has gone larger and [recognizes] that everybody would—no matter where they may be on that continuum of learning—benefit from extra support," the principal told CEP researchers.  "Some students are receiving interventions.  Some students are receiving enrichments.  But everybody's benefiting from the extra time."

Some schools were boxed in to their schedules by transportation costs. One Virginia district solved the problem by rerouting the buses so students at the SIG school were dropped off first in the morning and picked up last in the afternoon—adding 30 minutes to their school day. 

Two schools in Colorado decided that the best way to improve student achievement was by using the additional time to work with teachers to improve instruction. 

"Our investment is very much into teacher learning, teacher professional development, [and] teacher collaboration," explained the principal to the researchers.

Most schools in the study showed increases in students' test scores and graduation rates, but researchers note that those improvements can't be directly tied to expanded learning time. Since these schools are all chronically low performing, they have several interventions happening at once, making it impossible to isolate the outcome of a single effort. But, in interviews with the center, school officials said they felt strongly that expanded learning time was a major component of the academic gains. They also said that coordinating those programs was a challenge.

Researchers also found that schools and districts are concerned about how to maintain these expanded learning initiatives when their federal grants expire. The report cites a study by the National Center for Time and Learning that estimates the cost of adding 132 to 540 hours to a school year at between $2.20 and $5.23 an hour for each student.

As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the CEP's Ferguson said she hopes lawmakers will consider the lessons of the case studies and provide schools local flexibility to meet the broader goals of federal education policy. The U.S. Department of Education already proposed new guidelines for the school improvement grants program, which Education Week wrote about in September, to give schools more freedom to develop their own turnaround models. 

"Let's take a step back and look at what we've learned, look at what we know, and try to approach things a little differently," Ferguson suggested. The case studies show that schools, districts, and states can be encouraged to be creative about meeting goals when given the "flexibility that they need to be able to customize good ideas and not always feel the tyranny of scale, if you will, that everyone everywhere has to be doing the same thing." 

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