Despite President Obama's loftiest hopes to extend the number of school days per year, many schools are actually having to decrease them because of severe budget cuts. While the number of school days in other countries exceeds 200, they're being cut further in the U.S. to fewer than 180.
With families that have access to enrichment programs and encourage learning online at home, the discrepancy can be filled. But for low-income kids who don't have those opportunities, fewer school days puts them at an even greater disadvantage.
For these kids, the nonprofit organization Citizen Schools attempts to fill that gap. The organization works with low-income students in low-performing middle schools across the country to, in essence, lengthen the learning day by "bringing in a second shift of educators who work with students," says Stacey Gilbert, the organization's spokesperson.
That means that every student stays an extra three hours per day, four days a week, working on everything from language arts and math to art and P.E. in project-based groups. (Fridays are used for staff development.)
Here's what that looks like:
The organization also recruits "citizen teachers" from local businesses to teach 11-week apprenticeships about different kinds of careers through hands-on projects.
What's the impact of this intensive program? There are the tangible outcomes: 20 percent higher high-school graduation rates; 9 out of 10 Citizen Schools students passed state math and English exams; and students attend seven more weeks of school than their peers in low-performing schools.
But more importantly, the intangible results, as Gilbert describes it:
"Things like attitudes, beliefs, if they're feeling good about their schooling," she says. "A big part of what we found to be successful is that, hands-on project-based learning in middle school students in particular, and students overall, gets them excited about school. It makes those longer school days work. If you’re asking them to stay an additional three hours everyday, what are you doing that’s engaging to them over the longer day?"
Their long-terms studies are showing that not only students are doing better in school, but that the most at-risk kids are actually going on to high school. "What we want for them is to excel beyond middle school and to get off to a good start in high school, succeed there, and graduate from high school," Gilbert said.
When it comes to preventing dropouts at the crucial middle-school level, Gilbert thinks the longer school day is a good solution. "We know that middle school is an important time, when they decide if schools are for them," she said. "We’re seeing some success in a number of charter schools and traditional district schools that have extended learning times. That's because the kids have the extra time to get really engaged. They have more flexibility to learn what they're interested in by doing things that have been cut out because of the focus on test scores."
Students spend time in enrichment programs, in P.E. classes, social studies, science and other areas. And through the apprenticeship programs, they learn about careers in science, business, journalism, even photography and art. For instance, Google engineers help students build websites. They'll take field trips to colleges. "They're given the opportunity to talk to people who they wouldn't have the chance to talk with otherwise," she said. "They ask questions like, what kinds of courses should I be taking, what’s an AP course, what’s the pathway for me? Access to these kinds of people is a big piece."
But aren't kids tired by 6 o'clock at night?
"I’m sure there are days that seem longer than others," Gilbert said. "But if the programming is really high quality and does what we want it to do, then kids have energy and are enthusiastic. Just like any other school day. It could be 10 in the morning, and if this activity isn’t enough to keep their attention, they can't focus, they're tired, and it’s up to us to make sure we’re meeting those high quality standards."
As a movement, the Extended Learning Time initiative has gained momentum recently. The Massachusetts Extended Learning Time Initiative has been closely surveying progress of these kinds of programs and is showing success.
"As a litany of indicators attests, the length of the current school day is insufficient to meet the needs of students, especially those from low-income backgrounds. With just 20% of their waking hours in school, many students are desperate for more time to learn," said Eric Schwarz, co-founder and CEO of Citizen Schools. "The idea of creating more time for learning is gaining currency, especially as standards-based reforms within the conventional school day delivered exclusively by conventional teachers have mostly failed to deliver lasting gains. As expanded learning time gains momentum, the country has an opportunity that might come along once in a generation – an opportunity to dramatically change the way we structure the learning day.