SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 22, 2013

Column: Working together toward expanded time

Katie Casiglia
The Salem News

---- — Before my son became a kindergartner at Saltonstall, I had concerns about the real impact that expanded learning time would have on my children. Will they be overwhelmed, exhausted and begin to dislike school? What will happen to their afternoon free time for participating in activities or play? I can certainly understand the mixed feelings many have about Mayor Kim Driscoll’s proposal to expand learning time in Salem’s schools.

In considering my children’s best interests, I had multiple conversations with other parents and teachers about expanded learning time. The community meeting in January affirmed my belief that this is a great opportunity. Although my husband and I actively educate our children at home, we expect that time at school should be effective, stimulating and enriching. We choose to raise our family in Salem because it is a strong community with rich history, culture and diversity. Unfortunately, it has become clear that our school system needs further strengthening.

Extended learning time allows for a more balanced curriculum by providing more exposure to history, science, civics, art and music. Although the No Child Left Behind law is well-intentioned, it has forced schools to focus on math and English, reducing time for other valuable subjects. I won’t deny the importance of knowing and applying these fundamental skills. However, I want to be sure that my children can develop into well-rounded citizens who are able to think freely and critically as individuals and members of collaborative teams.

The traditional schedule of roughly 180 six-hour days prepared me adequately for college and the workforce. But the skills required of today’s adults have changed greatly. America has fallen behind many industrial countries in most educational parameters. Even districts with well-performing educational systems must fight to keep up as these countries continue to improve at faster rates. Twenty-first-century careers require both a greater depth of knowledge in specific areas and breadth of general knowledge for how each job fits into the global ecosystem. Complex problem-solving skills, advanced technical knowledge and cultural understanding are some of the factors critical to success. It is impossible to meet these demands using the same educational parameters established decades ago.

More time in school will also allow for things like snack, recess, physical education and, especially for younger children, rest time. I am certainly not alone in being discouraged that most children only have a 15-minute recess daily or gym class once weekly. Physical activity is not only important for a child’s health and well-being; fresh air and movement are critical for their attention span and performance in the classroom. My 5-year-old needs to move, run and jump (his teacher can woefully vouch for this). The extra time in the day allows for flexibility — to sing a song or go for a walk outside if the class is unsettled. Teachers can also delve deeper into a subject of newfound interest. It relieves me to know that my son’s kindergarten class has a 20-minute daily rest time to nap or engage in a quiet activity.

I know many parents that work full time and rely on after-school programs to care for their children. The expanded day adds more structured time for children to be engaged in purposeful enrichment. This time may take the form of hands-on projects, field trips, elective projects, apprenticeships and other academic, yet dynamic, activities. The activities are designed to be fun, but also meaningful and useful for reinforcing lessons. Even though I do not work full time, my ability to provide individualized, structured enrichment for all of my children is limited when compared to that provided by professional educators.

Like many others, my biggest concern is not about the time itself, but on how the time is used. Spending more time repeating the same things will not result in better schools. We all want reassurance that the time is used in the best way possible. But there can be no mistake that this adds flexibility that benefits our children from any number of standpoints.

With all of this said, I respect that expanded learning time may not seem well-suited for every child or family. I still hope that everyone remains open-minded for those who seek this opportunity for their children. I am very encouraged that Mayor Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell have opened this discussion with the community and plan to look at it on a school-by-school basis. They seem committed to working with Salem families to make this feasible. Furthermore, I am glad to see the Salem Teachers Union affirm the importance of careful planning for expanded learning time. We can work together to make sure that a new school calendar meets everyone’s needs — to accommodate existing activities of students and families and provide more time for teachers to plan and collaborate.

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Katie Casiglia is a Salem Public Schools parent. This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.