SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 28, 2013

Column: For Salem schools, more time an important step

Justin Vernon
The Salem News

---- — The value of expanded learning time has been a hot topic of conversation over recent months in our community, with some schools considering expanding their calendar and the School Committee considering a change to the calendar at Saltonstall School, a long-standing extended-year school. As a parent with kids soon to enter the Salem public schools, I am deeply concerned about the state of the city’s school system — particularly the three Salem schools that have received the lowest possible rating from the state. As an educator, I strongly believe that there is much more we can and should do to improve our schools. Expanded time, when used wisely, holds the promise of closing the educational achievement gap and making school a richer, more engaging experience for all students. I know because I have seen the benefits of more time firsthand in the schools where I’ve worked.

Additional time can be a key driver in increasing student achievement. From 2009 to 2010, I was the principal at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown. In 2005, the Edwards was on the verge of being shut down, until the school added significantly more time to its calendar. By 2009, it had become one of the highest-performing middle schools in the city of Boston, and it continues to be. I am currently the principal of the Roger Clap Innovation School, which was created and opened in 2011 as a way to better serve the students of the Clap Elementary, a school that closed, in part, due to low and stagnant student performance. Like the Edwards, we have added significantly more time to the calendar, and in our first year of existence, our third- through fifth-graders showed the highest improvement on the mathematics MCAS of all Boston public schools.

More time also gives school leaders more options to effectively use data to drive instruction. Through data, we are able to see specific areas where students need to be pushed or supported and then design targeted academic interventions within the additional time to help them. At the Roger Clap Innovation School, we’ve lengthened the school day by 30 minutes. With this extra time, we use data to deliver instruction aimed at pushing every student, regardless of their current performance level, to that next level. For students who are struggling, this means helping them catch up with their letter names and sounds. For students who are high-achievers, it means keeping them engaged with material that challenges them, like debate class or having student council members writing blog posts.

Adding additional time to the calendar isn’t just an opportunity to close the achievement gap and increase student achievement; it’s also a strategy to close opportunity gaps and increase enrichment opportunities for all students. With more time, students get access to experiences they might not otherwise have, from arts and music classes to outdoor activities and field trips. With a lengthened school day, Edwards students were on the football team, the dance squad, and learned boating skills. These are the kinds of experiences that make learning fun and engaging and ensure that students receive a well-rounded education.

We can add time to the school calendar by lengthening the day, the year, or some combination of the two. One strategy that yields strong results at both the Edwards Middle School and the Roger Clap Innovation School is the use of Acceleration Academies, one-week intensive interventions that take place during school vacation weeks that students can choose to attend to help improve their core skills in literacy and math. At the Edwards, Acceleration Academies have produced a substantial increase in MCAS scores among students who are not native English speakers.

Some parents may view the issue of more school time with trepidation. They may worry, for example, that more time in school will wear their kids out or take time away from nonacademic activities that are a key part of growing up. That’s why the way we use the additional time is so important. More time can’t just mean doing more of the same. Every minute must be used creatively and well.

Fortunately, Mayor Driscoll and Superintendent Russell have made a robust effort to engage the community in a discussion about expanding learning time. We owe it to our kids to do this right. One thing is certain: Doing nothing to improve our schools is not an option.

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Justin Vernon is a Salem resident and the principal of the Roger Clap Innovation School in Boston. He and his wife have children approaching school-age. This is one in a series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.