Educators should embrace extended school hours

BySehba Ali (op-ed)

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Twelve years ago, as a first-year language-arts teacher at a middle school in Houston, I had 50 minutes a day with each of my classes. That might sound like a decent amount of time, but after taking roll and checking homework, I was lucky to have even 40 minutes left to teach my students, the majority of whom were low income or just learning to speak English. I had to take a triage approach—one that’s familiar to most public-school teachers. I focused on the basics of reading and writing to prepare them for the state assessment test, and I was barely able to devote any time to analytical writing, listening comprehension, or persuasive speaking. It felt as if I was shortchanging the students, and my frustration was compounded by the fact that after summer vacation they forgot much of what they’d learned, coming back even less prepared than they were three months earlier.

Six years ago I founded KIPP Heartwood Academy, a public charter school in San Jose, part of a network of 99 KIPP schools nationwide. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) students spend more than 50 percent more time learning, with a school day that typically goes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., along with a mandatory three-week summer-school program. The added time is getting results. With a student population that’s more than 85 percent low income, Heartwood has ranked in the top 10 percent of all California public schools every year since its inception, and it was named a Blue Ribbon School this year by the U.S. Department of Education.

The idea of extending the school day—and year—is gaining momentum. President Obama recently joined other political and academic leaders who are calling for a new look at our outdated custom of halting instruction in July and August. (Sorry, kids.) But while I’m pleased there’s more attention being devoted to time management, I’m wary that the notion of tacking on hours will become a passing fad. Improving the country’s education system will take a lot more than simply extending the school day and year.

For starters, we shouldn’t spend all that extra class time only teaching academics. With budget cuts affecting schools nationwide, fewer are able to offer music and extracurriculars, but if kids are drilled in math and reading all day, they’ll lose interest in learning. Schools should extend their hours if they have the funding for both academics and extracurriculars. They need to provide time not only for remediation but also for sports, languages, performing-arts groups, and clubs for activities like debating that improve creativity and leadership skills.

Extended hours, if not done right, could also lead to teacher burnout. Already, dedicated educators work at home to grade or write lessons, and if the school day is prolonged without taking this into account, teachers could find themselves even more overburdened. Precautions have to be taken to make sure they’re not. At KIPP, we build in time during the day for teachers to meet with colleagues in the same grade or subject, enabling them to share lesson plans and coordinate instruction. This not only saves time for teachers but also helps ensure that expectations for both behavior and academics are consistent in every classroom. My school’s teacher-retention rate isn’t perfect, but while recent studies show that more than half of educators leave in the first five years, we keep 82 percent annually.

I commend the hundreds of schools nationwide that are beginning to embrace extended school hours and academic calendars. But if they don’t account for some of the potential pitfalls, I fear the plan could be discarded like so many other quick fixes. No cure, particularly when it comes to education, is quite so simple.

Ali is chief academic officer for KIPP Bay Area schools.