BOSTON SCHOOL superintendent Carol Johnson can’t transform public education by extending the school day for only 30 minutes — about the time it takes to throw together sloppy joes for dinner. She should abandon her months-long effort to cut a deal with the Boston Teachers Union for working an additional half hour. It’s not worth the money or the aggravation.
Education experts from the National Center on Time and Learning were in town earlier this week for a national conference that highlighted how more time in school translates into big achievement gains for urban students. Successful efforts often require adding two, three, or even more hours of academic and enrichment programs to the school day. That’s what it takes to close the achievement gap between low-income urban students and their suburban counterparts. Not a paltry 30 minutes.
Expanded learning time can be brought to scale in Boston without requiring Boston teachers to work beyond their current 6 or 6.5 hour work day. The better and more affordable solution is to mobilize a second shift of young educators who are fresh in the afternoon, don’t have to worry about grading papers, and aren’t pressed for time with family obligations.
This swing shift is already hard at work. The non-profit Citizen Schools embeds AmeriCorps teaching fellows and local volunteers in four of the city’s middle schools. More than 20 percent of the city’s sixth graders already spend almost three extra hours each day engaged in after-school tutoring, engineering projects, art, theater, and other enrichment programs with Citizen Schools staff and volunteers from local businesses and industry.
Eric Schwarz, the CEO of Citizen Schools, thinks it’s possible to enroll half of the city’s middle schoolers in his and similar extended-day programs within three years. That would be a game changer in Boston, where students in schools supplemented by Citizen Schools programs, such as the Edwards School in Charlestown, show academic growth on a par with some of the city’s best charter schools, which also feature longer school days.
The school day can be expanded dramatically.
Citizen Schools can fill the afternoon with high-quality programs throughout the school year for about $1,800 per student. That’s about 50 percent less than if public school teachers did the work at currently contracted rates, according to a January report by Bain & Company. It’s a good deal for the city’s taxpayers. With much of Citizen Schools’ costs covered by AmeriCorps grants and private donations, the per-pupil cost to Boston taxpayers is only about $1,200 for extending the school year by about 450 additional hours.
Some high-quality after-school programs operate without any taxpayer funding. The Paraclete Academy in South Boston is a calling for its co-founder, Sister Ann Fox. It’s also a godsend for low-income, elementary, and middle-school students who arrive at the former St. Augustine convent on E Street shortly after school and stay as late as 8 p.m. Paraclete takes considerable care to balance the ethnic and economic mix of its roughly 50 students.
Paraclete survives by virtue of philanthropic contributions, in-kind services from its families, and a brilliant personnel strategy: recruit talented and idealistic college grads willing to sign 11-month contracts in exchange for a small stipend plus room and board on the upper floors of the former convent.
Three recent graduates from Colby, Notre Dame, and Grinnell make up this year’s teaching contingent. With training from Paraclete’s principal, Ben Klooster, and opportunities to observe teachers at nearby Perkins elementary school, the young staffers more than held their own this week while conducting review classes for sixth graders who are preparing to take the entrance test for the city’s competitive examination schools.
At Paraclete Academy, it becomes clear that the school day can be expanded dramatically without the expense of employing veteran, certified teachers. What’s needed - and what’s available from the ranks of recent college grads - are a cadre of adult friends who are competent tutors and eager to share their outside interests. At Paraclete, that can take the form of anything from a spirited game of four square in the parking lot to hands-on classes on robotics.
No one likes to hear city schools compared to factories. But they do have one thing in common: the productive ones need second shifts.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.