Sandwiched between Governor Patrick’s call for major increases in spending for early childhood education and public higher education is a modest bump of $5 million to extend the school day in fiscal year 2014. The money is focused precisely where it belongs — middle school students in high-poverty districts.
State-funded pilot programs in 19 schools have shown that adding an average 95 minutes to the school day provides opportunities for both academic catch-up and the kinds of enrichment programs — arts, music, and sports — that are standard fare for students in higher-income communities. The proposed budget increase is only enough to extend these efforts to a small number of new schools. But it is meant to signal that the initiative has moved out of the experimental stage and into the mainstream of high-poverty schools.
An extraordinary coalition of teachers union officials, charter school operators, and business leaders — who rarely agree on much — has gathered under the umbrella of the nonprofit group Time to Succeed to urge lawmakers to support more extended school day programs. At a State House hearing today, supporters are likely to urge lawmakers to proceed at a modest pace. The long-range goal is to provide extended day programs in about 175 additional schools — but only if the schools agree to a comprehensive planning process and performance goals. It’s refreshing to see a group of advocates who are demanding accountability of their movement, and not just asking for more taxpayer support.
The best and most affordable extended day programs are hybrid operations. The schools’ regular teachers who want to earn extra money work one-on-one with students who need the extra attention on academic subjects. Meanwhile, educators from nonprofit groups such as Citizen Schools are brought in to run the enrichment programs, and for less than the contracted salaries of the school’s unionized teachers. It is a system that is already working effectively across the state, and without prompting labor disputes. State education officials would be wise to focus new funds on schools willing to adopt such models.
Done right, the longer school day leads both to higher scores on standardized tests and better-prepared students. Middle school kids from poor neighborhoods, meanwhile, are often looking for deeper relationships with educators and mentors. Providing some extra time to achieve these outcomes is a sound social and educational investment.