BOSTON — School principal Robin Harris used to see the clock on her office wall as the enemy, its steady ticking a reminder that time was not on her side.
But these days Harris smiles when the clock hits 1:55 p.m. There are still two more hours in the school day — two more hours to teach math and reading, art and drama.
Harris runs Fletcher-Maynard Academy, a combined public elementary and middle school in Cambridge, Mass., that is experimenting with an extended, eight-hour school day.
“It has sort of loosened up the pace,” Harris said. “It’s not as rushed and frenzied.”
The school, which serves mostly poor, minority students, is one of 10 in the state experimenting with a longer day as part of a $6.5 million program.
While Massachusetts is leading in putting in place the longer-day model, lawmakers in Minnesota, New Mexico, New York and Washington, D.C., also have debated whether to lengthen the school day or year.
In addition, individual districts such as Miami-Dade in Florida are experimenting with added hours in some schools.
U.S. school years lag behind peers’
On average, U.S. students go to school 6.5 hours a day, 180 days a year, fewer than in many other industrialized countries, according to a report by the Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank.
One model that traditional public schools are looking to is the Knowledge is Power Program, which oversees public charter schools nationwide.
Those schools typically serve low-income middle-school students, and their test scores show success. Students generally go from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week and for a few hours every other Saturday. They also go to school for several weeks in the summer.
That amounts to at least 50 percent more instructional time for students in such programs than in traditional public schools, according to the report.
The extended-day schedule costs on average about $1,200 extra per student, program spokesman Stephen Mancini said.
Massachusetts is spending about $1,300 per student extra on its extended-day effort.
Most of the extra cost goes into added pay for teachers. At Fletcher-Maynard, senior teachers can make up to $20,000 more per year for the extended hours, Harris said. Not all of the school’s teachers have opted to work longer hours.
The National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union, has no official opinion on extending the school day.
But its president, Reg Weaver, said teachers probably would support the idea if, like in Massachusetts, they could choose whether to work the longer hours.
He also said teachers must be adequately compensated and should have a say in setting the goals of any such effort.
Performance requirements play a role
An important impetus for the debate around extending school hours is the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The five-year-old law requires annual testing in reading and math for grades three through eight, and again in high school. All students are expected to be working on grade level by 2014.
Schools that fail to meet annual benchmarks are labeled as needing improvement and have to take steps to address the problem.
Up against such a tough requirement, extending the day makes sense, Harris said. “If you want kids to read, and you want to teach them how to read, they have to have time reading,” she said.
Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said that law “has put enough pressure on more people to realize that the traditional school day is not enough to catch kids up.”
Christie, whose Denver-based nonprofit focuses on school reform, added, “You can’t keep taking away recess.”
Greater emphasis on enrichment
Schools that are experimenting with longer days are adding more down time and enrichment courses, as well as reading and math.
At Edwards Middle School, an extended-day school in Boston, students are staging musicals, designing book covers for favorite novels and coming up with new cheers to boost school spirit — an activity favored by 13-year-old Janice Tang.
“This is a class where I can express myself, be active,” Tang said one afternoon after she pumped her arms in the air during a girls-only class that incorporates cheering with topics such as sex education and discouraging smoking. “It’s very cool, and I have fun a lot.”
Massachusetts’ education commissioner, David Driscoll, said the offbeat classes get kids excited about a longer day.
“Once they’re engaged, they’ll learn other lessons,” Driscoll said. “I think the big mistake that everybody makes is they think that education is all about the academics.”
Congress takes notice
The No Child Left Behind law is due to be updated this year, and the lawmakers involved are eyeing the Massachusetts model.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he likes the way schools in Massachusetts have invited community organizations to help with some enrichment courses.
“If you’re just extending the day to bore the hell out of the child, why don’t we all just all go home and save the overtime. You’ve got to rethink these models,” said Miller, D-Calif.
U.S. Sen. Democrat Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education, is considering allowing schools that fail to meet annual progress goals to extend their day as a possible solution.
Kennedy, D-Mass., also is considering putting AmeriCorps volunteers — recent college graduates who can help teach — into schools that adopt a longer day.
Some parents reluctant
Extending the day has not been tackled extensively in high schools where many students have afterschool jobs or play sports.
The idea is not always applauded by parents, at least initially.
Dawn Oliver was so apprehensive about a plan this year to expand the day at her daughter’s middle school in Fall River, Mass., that she considered pulling 11-year-old Brittany out.
“We all had the same thought in our head, which was, ’Oh my God, these kids are going to have their head in a book for the same amount of time as working a full-time job,”’ Oliver said.
She said her fears began to fade, however, when she saw the list of electives the kids could take in the afternoon, including cooking and forensics. Those reinforce core lessons, Oliver said.
“They’re making a magazine. She’s an advice columnist,” she said of Brittany. “The kids get so involved in these things because it’s not all book work.”
Oliver said the real benefits showed up on Brittany’s report card, which improved from straight C’s to B’s.
“I did not foresee honor roll,” Oliver said, brimming with pride.
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