Like many parents in the Boston Public Schools, Naama Goldstein of Allston is an accidental activist. She was watching an education forum online when she saw panelists gushing about lengthening the school day. The moment, she told me, felt like an “awakening.”
“I was struck by the group-think on ELT,” she told me. “Absolutely everybody is behind this. Why?”
“ELT” is educational jargon for “extended learning time,” and Goldstein is right that, in many circles, it’s assumed to be universally good. Longer days do seem to solve a lot of problems at once: allowing more time for personal instruction, gym, and the arts; matching school schedules with the needs of working parents.
In Boston, nearly every mayoral candidate favors lengthening the day, either by renegotiating the teachers’ contract or bringing outside groups to do the work. But a vocal group of parents is fighting the tide, arguing that longer days strip parents of autonomy, cut into family time, and tire out young kids.
These parents are worth listening to, because their argument dovetails with another challenge for Boston schools: keeping middle-class families engaged and enrolled. Their battle also reflects a growing national dynamic: the tension between wealthy philanthropists with big ideas about education, and the middle-class families on the receiving end.
Some suspicion of the Common Core, for instance, is tied to the involvement of the Gates Foundation. And when it comes to longer school days, one of most vocal proponents is the advocacy group Mass 2020, founded by Boston businessman Chris Gabrieli.
To some parents, Gabrieli’s well-meaning ideas feel like an imposition. Goldstein, who has been organizing parents against ELT, says her eight-year-old son loves his pilot school in Mission Hill, but is ready to go home when she picks him up at 3:30. Another mom told me her kids need free play. One talked about how, if her kids took the bus after a longer school day, they wouldn’t get home until dinnertime.
Like many middle-class parents today, these families spend some of their time and money on sports and lessons. But Goldstein balked at the idea that karate or dance should just be taught within the confines of the school day, instead.
“That’s equivalent to saying, ‘Listen, we now have centralized your children’s feeding. We have a crew of highly researched, highly qualified nutritionists, and you no longer get to feed your child . . . but they will be so healthy,’ ” she said.
She and other parents said they’d support a free after-school program, so long as it were voluntary. “I’m completely for that. You can raise my taxes,” the stay-at-home mom told me. “It’s the mandatory part that we don’t like.”
But extended-day advocates say that to work best, extra time must be universal: enrichment classes that aren’t just tacked onto the afternoon, but integrated into the schedule, so that you might find kids doing karate in the morning and math at 3 p.m.
And they note that many urban kids wouldn’t get enrichment any other way. Gordonia Cundiff, a Roxbury mother, offered high praise for Orchard Gardens, a Boston pilot school with an extended day, which her 14-year-old son attended last year. With the help of the nonprofit group Citizen Schools, her son learned how to program a video game and got excited about engineering.
“Sometimes, we think that the kids are sacrificing so much,” Cundiff said. “But then what would they be doing? They’d just be at home sitting in front of the door.”
Gabrieli is open to compromise, in a sense. He says schools shouldn’t lengthen their days if parents don’t opt in. But the real question is whether these programs would work with a parental opt-out — or, if not, how to encourage middle-class families to say “yes.”
Pointing to test scores won’t cut it; studies show that the correlation, so far, is inconclusive at best. Instead, you have to talk about community. You have to convince people that it’s a social problem when so many urban kids lack access to piano or karate or extra math tutoring. You have to decide that it’s a social good to give kids something productive to do, together, after 1:30 p.m.
You have to say that, in an urban school system where sacrifice is the norm, someone will have to sacrifice some more.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.