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Districtwide Extended-Learning Model in Arizona Finds Success

Extending the school year by 20 days has helped one Arizona district turn around its underperforming schools and drastically improve students' reading scores, reports a recent article.

The Balsz Elementary district in northern Phoenix shifted to a 200-day calendar when Superintendent Jeffery Smith took the reins for the 2008-09 school year. Three years ago, the district had low student enrollment, and many students were failing to meet federal and state performance standards. Around 90 percent of the students in the district are on free or reduced price lunch plans.

Today, reading scores have increased as much as 40 percent for 5th and 6th graders and 20 percent for 3rd and 4th graders. Eighty-five percent of 6th graders have met or exceeded state and federal performance standards in reading, the article reports.

As it notes, shifting to an expanded-learning-time model can come with challenges, such as cost for implementation and dealing with pushback from parents and teachers. Some of the other challenges (as well as benefits) have been mentioned on this blog and in EdWeek stories in the past.

According to Smith, in a phone interview with EdWeek, his push for ELT stemmed from his own research into the successes others had found implementing a longer school year, as well as the Arizona law that provides districts that add 20 days to the school year an additional 5 percent in state funding.

No other district had taken the state up on the offer until Balsz did, Smith said, and still haven't to date, though some are moving in that direction in the next two years. He decided to use 80 percent of the additional funding to give teachers a 9 percent raise, the rest for other costs associated with the longer year. The district has also received additional funding and support from businesses and other organizations since it shifted to an ELT model.

Now in its third year of implementation, Balsz students attend school an extra two weeks at the beginning of the year and two weeks at the end. On Wednesdays, they leave two hours early to give teachers additional time for professional development. By 8th grade (including kindergarten), students have had an additional full year of academic instruction, said Smith.

"ELT is a fundamental shift in the right direction for what we need to do for our kids," said Smith. "It's now the centerpiece of a whole reform model for our district and our community."


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