SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 8, 2013

Column: Longer school days offer chance for student success

Jennifer Davis
The Salem News

---- — As a North Shore resident, I was pleased to join Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and Dr. Stephen Russell last month at a community meeting about expanded learning time (ELT). At that meeting, the discussion covered a lot of ground — about what it means to expand learning time and why more than 90 schools across Massachusetts have decided to act on this issue. In my presentation (which can be found on our website at www.timeandlearning.org), I included videos of parents, students and teachers sharing their perspectives because their voices are critically important to any conversation about ELT. I was energized by the thoughtful dialogue and questions that followed, and it is clear to me that the Salem leadership and community is committed to exploring important strategies to improve the city’s schools.

Since that meeting, I have heard from parents and community members wondering what it means to “implement expanded school schedules well.” They want to better understand the real impact on children, if the Salem schools move in this direction. They are concerned that the time may not be used well.

I’m the parent of a kindergartener and I empathize with this anxiety. I chose an expanded-time school for my daughter because I wanted her to be exposed to a second language, music and art in addition to the Three Rs (and science and world geography). We all want to know that the schools to which we send our children are offering the best possible academic and enrichment opportunities. We want to know that if our children need more time for one-on-one support the school has time to offer it and that physical education and the arts will not be squeezed out by literacy and math. I’m pleased to say that expanding learning time makes this personalized and a well-rounded education possible.

The 90 expanded-time schools across the state are beating the odds. They are improving at faster rates than other schools with the same demographics. These are the kinds of gains Salem needs. But these schools did not achieve these gains simply by adding more time. Instead, they each found ways to leverage more time to implement proven educational strategies like hands-on learning, targeted support where students need help, and engaged learning like robotics, CSI science, and drama programs that develop communication skills and self confidence. Further, with more time, teachers can regularly analyze student data to make good decisions about interventions and provide more personalized instruction. Recognizing that children learn in different ways and at different paces, this individualized approach helps teachers target support to children who need it.

Expanded learning time also means more opportunities for teachers to collaborate on instructional practice and hone their skills in the classroom. Surveys show that teachers want more time both in the classroom and with their peers; they just don’t have enough time in the current school day.

Providing this richer, more rigorous curriculum and more systematic opportunities for teacher professional development does not come automatically with the introduction of more time. Indeed, because time is an enabler of other key educational practices, not a panacea all on its own, not all schools with significantly more time make noticeable gains. It takes hard work and deep commitment to make sure that time is used wisely and well. Teachers and administrators, parents and students, must work together to first understand how the school’s current time is being used and then to re-imagine and re-design a school day and year that takes full advantage of all the school’s resources, including more time. But when schools are able to infuse their visions of how to re-structure the school day and year with a culture of high expectations, the effective use of student data and a commitment to teachers’ collaboration and development, expanded learning time produces impressive improvements in teaching and learning.

In fact, in our experience, we have come across virtually no underperforming school that has shown marked improvement while still operating within the bounds of the conventional school schedule of 180 six-hour days. The calendar that was developed to meet the needs of a nineteenth-century agrarian and factory economy simply doesn’t give students enough time to master the skills and knowledge they will need today for success in college or careers. Salem is a great city, but its schools are not where they should be. We commend the Salem community for not being satisfied with the status quo and instead seizing the chance to give schools and students the time they need to succeed.

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Jennifer Davis, a Lynn resident, is co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning (www.timeandlearning.org), a nonprofit organization based in Boston. This is one in a series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.