BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — When September rolls around, it does not appear that Salem teachers will be working a longer school day.
Although adding roughly an hour to the teachers’ schedule was one of the goals of the current contract negotiations, which dragged on for nearly two years before going to mediation, the city and Salem Teachers Union have not been able to reach an agreement on the subject of time.
“While we have interest in both an expanded day and providing teachers with more time to address multiple initiatives, we really haven’t met with much success at the negotiating table on those two topics,” Superintendent Stephen Russell said.
Contract negotiations between the city and union have just about wrapped up, with a vote expected in a few weeks.
Extending the school day was one of the top priorities of Mayor Kim Driscoll and a move that had strong backing from the state, which has put pressure on Salem to turn around an “underperforming” school system.
One of the stumbling blocks, of course, is money. If teachers are going to be asked to work a longer school day, they want to be paid.
Joyce Harrington, president of the union, said teachers aren’t opposed to working a longer day. The bigger issue for the union, she said, was the plan, or lack of one.
“We didn’t reach agreement because we felt there needs to be more planning ...” Harrington said. “We understand the need for additional time for staff and students but want to make sure it is a solid plan that will achieve success with student achievement.
“That’s our goal,” she said, “to get kids to achieve, and we’re all in that together, but we want it to be well-crafted, well-planned, and properly and effectively implemented.”
Of course, Salem already has two schools operating on longer school days: Saltonstall, a K-8 school with an extended day and year, and Bentley Elementary School, which added an hour this school year after being given Level 4 status by the state based on low scores in the state MCAS exams.
However, while Bentley students go to school an extra hour, Bentley teachers still work their regular shifts. But those shifts have been staggered.
Without teachers working the extra hour, Bentley had to implement what it calls a “flex” plan, which requires other staff to fill in for classroom teachers the first or last hours of the school day.
Bentley can do that largely because of a $500,000 turnaround grant that allowed it to hire more people. School officials realize, however, that is not a self-sustaining model, meaning it will end when the grant money runs out, unless another funding source is found.
It is too early to judge Bentley, most agree, because it is in the first year of a three-year turnaround effort. However, when asked at a forum last week how the Bentley extended-day schedule is working, Russell said there have been a few kinks and the results so far are “mixed.”
The local precedent for more money for more time, of course, was set at Saltonstall, which was founded two decades ago as an extended-day, extended-year school. Teachers are paid a 16 percent differential for many more days and hours.
But has the extra time made a difference at Saltonstall, if success is measured by MCAS scores? Russell was asked that question at last week’s forum and said it remains an “ongoing debate.”
Saltonstall, he said, is “not knocking the ball out of the park.”
The subject of longer school days is a hot one in Salem. Last week’s community meeting, which drew more than 150 people on a cold night, was titled “Transforming Schools Through Expanded Learning Time.”
The two speakers were co-founders of an organization called the National Center on Time & Learning.
One of the messages from several speakers was that a longer school day alone won’t turn around a school. It has to be combined with a number of enhancements, including tutoring, small group learning, more teacher planning time, enrichment programs and a culture of high expectations.
“Expanded learning time is not a panacea,” said Chris Gabrieli, co-founder of the National Center on Time & Learning. “It’s how you do it.”
But more time can be important, speakers said, especially in districts like Salem with a high percentage of low-income students and many children from homes where English is not the first language.
School systems facing such challenges have shown “significant growth” by extending the day and adding programs, said Jennifer Davis, the organization’s other co-founder.
Even without having teachers work a longer day, Salem school officials are still interested in increasing the number of extended-day schools and plan to explore options. They will look at current school schedules to see if they can make better use of time, investigate ways to reconfigure the school day and figure out how to incorporate additional programs.
They tentatively plan to survey staff, teachers, parents and students at every school with the hope of beginning an extended-day program at one or two schools next fall.
They expect to start slowly, it appears, to make sure this is not a plan imposed by school administrators but one developed by individual schools with strong local support. It could result, officials said, in different models for different schools.
“We want to put in place a couple of schools that are excited about it ... and hopefully will have some success,” Driscoll said.
“For us ...” she said, “the issue is how do we take the next step.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.