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Is Extended-Learning Time the Right Solution for Failing Schools?

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A new report from the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL) profiles three elementary schools that have made tremendous gains with students from low-income backgrounds by extending the school day.

At John Barry Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., 85 percent of the student body comes from a low-income family. At Centennial Elementary in Denver, that number is 70 percent. And, at Hill Elementary School in Revere, Mass., 41 percent of the students are classified as low-income.

After several years of struggling to make academic progress, all three schools abandoned the traditional 6.5 hour school day for an instructional day of around eight hours.

IMG_5081.jpgThe NCTL report called, "Creating Learning Environments in the Early Grades That Support Teacher and Student Success," details how the schools were able to utilize the extra time to improve student outcomes as well as to provide teachers with additional opportunities to work collaboratively. The report was made possible by support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. 

David Farbman is the lead author of the report and NCTL's senior researcher.

He says administrators at the three schools liked the additional time because it allowed them to "build a schedule around all of the things they wanted to do with kids." So, there was plenty of time for academics, along with social-emotional learning, and physical activity.

"A longer day makes it so that there's not an either/or choice that educators are forced into," said Farbman. "They can either do science or they can do English and math. In the case of early grades, they can either focus on learning or build in time for the social-emotional, social relationship-building kind of things. The longer day is a platform for hitting it all."

The report also finds this extra time is particularly beneficial for students who come from low-income families and often start school behind their peers.

"Research shows that expanded time generally is a positive, but it's more positive for at-risk kids," said Farbman. "The opportunities for productive learning environments outside of school tend to be limited, so if you can expand their opportunities within the formal school day it will just have more of an impact."

Time Management

How do the teachers make sure the youngest students don't burn out during these longer days?

"They've been able to build in enough rest time, so that the afternoon hours are as productive as the morning hours," said Farbman. "They really do feel like they're able to hold kids' attention throughout the day, that the kids are engaged in serious learning. And, I don't mean serious rote. I mean serious, rigorous, and robust."

Farbman says the longer day also means traditional early elementary school-day activities such as unstructured playtime and time for music don't have to be sacrificed for more time spent on academics.

Benefits for Teachers

In the extended-day model, students spend time with specialists most days, and this gives core academic teachers time to meet.

"In elementary school, it's very typical for teachers to go into their classroom and close the door," said Farbman. "Their classroom is their domain and that's it."

But at the three profiled schools, teachers worked closely with their peers to figure out how to approach lessons better, and collaboration became part of the culture.

"That kind of makes them feel more positive about their ability to improve their instruction," said Farbman. "They push each other to reach higher expectations."

 Extended Days for All?

While NCTL supports extended school days across the board, Farbman stresses the schedule has to feel right for everyone involved.

"We very much promote a model where the school leaders and teachers are empowered to design a day that fits their needs and their students' needs," said Farbman. "There are many, many schools that are serving middle- and high-income kids that probably don't need an extended day. The kids in these communities are engaged in lots of after-school activities, lots of summer learning opportunities. But for kids from low-income communities, it's, in many cases, the only source of productive learning that they can get."

Photo: Students at John Barry Elementary School in Meriden, Ct., work on a project. (Courtesy NCTL)


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