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Rise Early And Shine: Teachers And Students Try Out Longer School Days

By Charles Lane | WSHU
Sunday, February 10, 2013

It's 7:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, the sun is still rising and the kids at Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., are already dancing.

They are stomping, hopping, clapping and generally "getting the shakies out," as fifth-grader Jaelinne Davis puts it.

"If we're like hyper, if we do this, then we can get better at, like, staying mellow and stuff like that," she says.

By 9 a.m., Jaelinne will be back at her normal school day with its core curriculum that is graded by a state test at the end of the year.

But until then, she'll have 80 minutes of exercising, breakfast and enrichment classes. These classes such as math, computer games, robotics and hands-on science lessons are all meant to be fun, but still include a level of learning, extending the length of a typical school day.

Although kids may not like the idea of creating a longer school day, policymakers do.

From President Obama to his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, down to states like New York and Arizona, there's a push to make public school day longer.

The costs, however, could be prohibitively expensive. So, a handful of public schools are experimenting with making it affordable.

Daniel Coffey, Pulaski Elementary's principal, says it's about making longer school days less grueling.

"We want it to be fun and engaging, especially in this morning hour," Coffey says. "You know, if I had to send my children to school to do more test prep or more penmanship or more just plain old reading and writing, I'm not so interested."

That "plain old reading and writing" is what educators call academic time. Advocates for longer school days say kids do best when you increase a blend of enrichment classes with straight academic time, and also extra collaboration time for teachers.

They also say it provides a well-rounded education, especially for families who can't afford piano lessons or extracurricular activities.

"It gives, frankly, high-poverty kids what most middle class and upper middle class families now want and buy on the outside for their kids," says Chris Gabrieli, co-founder of the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit that is campaigning to make school longer.

Of course, making school days longer costs money, mostly in teacher salaries. Gabreli says it costs about $1,000 to $1,500 per student per year, making school bills 5 to 10 percent more expensive than what they are now.

Yet Coffey says Pulaski Elementary's extended-school program is much cheaper. The school system says it will cost between $80 to $115 per child per year.

Coffey does this a couple ways: By focusing on enrichment time, he needs fewer unionized teachers and can get away with instructors from a local community group.

For the teachers who would work longer school hours, Coffey plans to stagger their schedules and use those large dance and computer classes to dilute the teacher-pupil ratio.

Coffey says this will make the extra 80 minutes in the morning schedule cost-effective and sustainable.

But there's no way to tell if enrichment time alone will yield any results.

"There's really concrete evidence that more academic time leads to improved performance," says Benjamin Hansen says, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon. "There's nothing that suggests increased enrichment time will."

Hansen and others who have studied the issue say there is some suggestion that enrichment time in after-school programs can lead to higher attendance and graduation rates, but the evidence is far from overwhelming.

In fact, Hansen says the experiments being done at Pulaski and elsewhere might be the first chance to study the impact of extending the less expensive enrichment time.

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