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Chicago and Other Locales Tinker with School Calendar

Chicago high schools will add 36 minutes to the school day district-wide next fall, a move aimed at boosting student performance in core subjects. Union officials held protests at eight of these schools last week.

The added time will align the high schools to the elementary schools, now at 7.5 hour days. District officials said they also plan on restructuring the time spent during the day to give students 46 minutes more of instructional time.

As you may remember, Chicago Public Schools got off to a bit of a rocky start at the beginning of the school year when the district pushed longer days at the elementary schools. Union officials called the financial incentives offered to schools that shifted "coercion," and protested.

Thirteen elementary schools accepted the offer this year; the district plans to implement a longer schedule at all elementary schools by next fall. (There have been no statements yet as to whether the longer days will yield higher teacher salaries.)

Chicago is not alone in new locales considering school day and year extensions. Iowa state education officials recently announced their schools may add 10 days to the year and hours to the school day. This could cost the state an additional $10 to $15 million a day, they reported.

But others are cutting the school calendar instead to save money. The Seattle Times reported on Washington state districts that are planning to cut as many as 30 days from the school year by shifting to a four day week with longer hours per day. The cost savings would come mainly in the food service, utility, and busing costs not needed when the schools aren't in use on the fifth day.

According to a report by the Education Commission of the States released this year, the four day, longer day plan is something a number of districts have considered in the current fiscal climate. As of last May, ECS reported 120 districts in 17 states had shifted to a four day week. However, the savings of the four day plan is not that high, a maximum of 5.43 percent, they found. Still, even though the savings was small, it was still enough of an incentive for a number to switch, the brief says.

[I would be interested to hear about the impact this schedule shift has had on parents and out of school programs who need to provide childcare on the fifth day not in school.]

But many advocates of expanded learning time emphasize that tacking on minutes or hours to the day will not have a strong impact on student academic performance: it is what is done with that time. Innovative and strategic school redesign with additional time can be an extremely effective school turnaround strategy at low performing schools if done well, they argue.

See Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, blogging her thoughts on the issue on CNN.

"Of course, time is only a resource, not a strategy. It matters a great deal what schools do with the time to improve teaching and learning," Davis writes. "However, in my experience, unless schools are provided the resource of additional time, they will be unable to bring their students to the levels of proficiency they will need to meet the demands of the 21st century."

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