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The Podium

Key lessons on expanding the school day

Expanded Learning Time has been touted as a key lever for school improvement in the Boston mayoral campaign. As a network of middle schools partnering with the nonprofit Citizen Schools, we have first-hand experience navigating the complexities and opportunities of expanding the school day for Boston Public School students.

Together, we are partnering to build better school communities with increased family involvement and the resources necessary to close educational gaps. We leverage Citizen Schools’ “second shift” of AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows and volunteers to compliment a swing shift of Boston Teachers Union teachers. Together, we aligned to improve our student’s academic performance and engagement while building greater teacher collaboration.

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This fall, our schools will offer over 2,100 students a 9-10 hour school day. Collectively, we are serving almost 20 percent of Boston’s middle grade students and, significantly, some of the highest special needs and English as Second Language populations in the district.

We wish to offer three key lessons learned for Boston’s next mayor as a way to frame an informed discussion about ELT:

Lesson #1: High quality ELT should be clearly defined and focused on models that best drive student achievement and engagement. When we added three to four extra hours to the day, we gained the chance to fundamentally rethink the school schedule and the roles of our teachers and community partners. This was critical to our success. By leveraging Citizen Schools’ second shift and the corporate and community volunteers they recruit, we avoided over-working our BTU teachers and tapped resources from our surrounding communities.

We gained more time for staff planning and professional development, improving instructional practices and ensuring we could better address student needs. An Abt Associates study evaluating ELT models across the Commonwealth showed that “more of the same” instruction does not deliver the desired academic gains. As our student results show, we are closing achievement gaps by using more time differently and better. Since implementing the first ELT partnership in 2007, our 6th grade MCAS gains have been dramatic; collectively, we have closed nearly two-thirds of the achievement gap in math and nearly half of the achievement gap in English Language Arts (ELA) compared to the state average, surpassing BPS’s improvement trajectory.

Lesson #2: ELT done right helps close academic and opportunity gaps for the students we serve. Serious efforts to close educational gaps recognize the unequal access to learning opportunities and role modeling many of our BPS students face, compared to more affluent students in surrounding suburbs. The growing academic gaps are accentuated by a widening opportunity gap – namely in the access our children have to additional experiences in the afternoon hours and other out-of-school time. While suburban children participate in music lessons, science clubs, sports teams, and other structured learning opportunities at relatively high levels; students from our urban districts have less access to these opportunities. Our expanded learning day is changing that.

If a student has never met an engineer or marketer, it becomes more difficult for them to strive for the same role. Citizen Schools gives our students access to experts from the community who model success in diverse professions, giving our students chances to apply academic skills in real world contexts while opening doors to potential careers. Designing video games with engineers deepens their understanding of algebra and analyzing savings plans with investment executives illustrates the importance of financial planning.

Lesson #3: Targeted ELT implementation is best. High quality ELT takes planning, reallocation of scarce budget dollars, and deep commitment by every adult involved. ELT efforts in Boston’s schools do not need to be all or nothing. The goal is to develop affordable, sustainable models that provide assurance to families and schools with whom BPS partners, such as Citizens Schools. Many arguments point to the benefit of targeted investment in ELT for the highest need schools and/or specific grade levels. Differentiating ELT based on the state performance levels and allowing more Level 3 and 4 schools to take advantage will ensure more students access the resources they need to succeed.

A strong argument should also be made for a differentiated focus on middle grades. A comprehensive report published by The Full-Service Schools Roundtable and BPS in 2012 showed that afterschool and ELT programming were available for only 50 percent of middle school students, compared to 87 percent and 79 percent for elementary and high schools respectively. Research shows that engagement and performance in 6th grade and the transition to 9th grade are key factors for high school graduation. A deep focus on closing gaps by scaling ELT in our most challenged middle schools (and the upper grades in K-8 schools) can leverage proven models, like Citizen Schools, in a strategic and cost-effective manner.

We have each seen the benefits ELT has on our students, teachers, families, and communities. We wish the candidates the best of luck and stand ready to offer and collaborate on solutions that are proven to work for our students.

Pat Kirby is vice president and chief operating officer of Citizen Schools; Andrew Bott is principal of Orchard Gardens Middle School; Arthur Unobskey is principal of Washington Irving Middle School; Kimberly E. Curtis-Crowley is principal of Lee School; Michael Sabin is principal of McCormack Middle School, and Robert Rametti is principal of Edwards Middle School.

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