A longer school day, a smarter kid?

ByGregory A. Patterson

Audriana Clifton’s alarm sounded at 6 a.m. as usual, prompting her to get dressed and out the door of her north Minneapolis home quietly to keep from waking her mother. She ate breakfast at school and by 7:45 a.m. had turned in her homework and was in her first class.

Reading, social studies, math, science, P.E., science lab and a study hall came in a steady procession — three of them for 65 minutes, the others for 55 — before the fifth-grader climbed onto the bus to go home at 5 p.m.

Audriana’s school, KIPP Stand Academy in downtown Minneapolis, is one of the latest education experiments to close the stubborn achievement gap among black, Hispanic and white children by keeping kids in school for longer hours. Two other Minneapolis charter schools, Harvest Prep/Seed Academy and Hiawatha Leadership Academy, also have extended schedules.

Such programs are gaining support among educators and politicians, including President Obama, who is calling for schools to rethink how they deliver education. Proponents say it makes no sense to send students to an empty home in the midafternoon when they could use the time for educational activities.

Naysayers, however, point to increased costs that longer days will bring as well as the potential for more burnout among students. Some argue that longer school days will further cut down on precious family time.

American students spend at least a month less in school than children in South Korea, Obama said in his watershed education speech in March, adding, “That is no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy.”

The average American school day lasts about six hours, but should be 7 1/2 hours, said Jennifer Davis, president of Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning. Davis also is a founder of the Mass 2020 project, which has instituted longer school days at 26 public schools in Massachusetts, most of them in urban areas where achievement levels had lagged.

“We’re operating on a school schedule that was created 200 years ago to meet the needs of farms and factories,” she said. “That schedule is not meeting the needs today,” especially where low-income minority children are concerned.

Saturday and summer classes In addition to the longer days, KIPP Academy holds school two Saturday mornings a month and three weeks during the summer.

Davis and other experts say one of the most important reasons the extended school day works is that it fills in time for kids that would otherwise be empty of useful education. Low-income children don’t usually get music, dance or hockey lessons — extracurricular activities that help them develop socially and intellectually when they are outside of school, they say.

Though there is no groundswell to lengthen school days in Minnesota, at KIPP Academy, the early results have been positive. Audriana started fifth grade last fall reading at a second-grade level, has risen to a fourth-grade level and continues to make strides. There’s a chance she could soon be at her grade level, said Principal Mike Spangenberg.

Audriana has also caught the book bug. Even with her demanding schedule, she reads books outside of class. These days she’s reading “Money Hungry” by Sharon Flake, a tale about a 13-year-old formerly homeless inner-city girl who works hard to help gain a financial footing for her family. It is a story not unlike her own.

“I like books,” Audriana said. “But the thing I like most about school is math.”

For Audriana and many other students, the school is a bulwark against what can be an unstable urban life. “We’ve had a dozen kids move away because of the foreclosure crisis,” Spangenberg said.

The KIPP model works for Audriana, but it’s unclear how broadly it can be replicated. KIPP Academy — which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program — has 66 schools in 19 states. They are mostly charter schools because traditional public schools don’t have the financial or operational flexibility from state officials or local districts to pay for and implement such changes, which would include negotiations with the teachers union.

“We recognize that more time on task for students in general is a positive thing, and in particular the research shows that it’s been used in programs that have made strides in closing the achievement gap,” said Morgan Brown, Minnesota’s assistant commissioner of education.

Whether traditional school districts could adopt such hours would be a matter to be negotiated between the district, voters and school employees, Brown said.

 

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