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Extended school day yields mixed results in Boston

Eric Jancewicz worked on a robotics project with another student in a class they are able to take because the Eliot K-8 school added an extra hour this year.
Eric Jancewicz worked on a robotics project with another student in a class they are able to take because the Eliot K-8 school added an extra hour this year.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

Lengthening the day at dozens of Boston public schools has yielded mixed results, a Globe review has found, offering a cautionary tale as the city seeks to double the number of schools with extended learning time.

For many schools, a longer day has failed to dramatically boost academic achievement or did so only temporarily. The uneven results prompted school district officials to scrap the extra minutes at some schools and the state to pull funding or pursue receiverships at others.

But other schools have successfully used an extended day to boost MCAS scores or expand offerings in the arts and other electives.

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“I think there are lessons to be learned,” said John McDonough, interim superintendent. “We know time matters, but it only matters if it is used well.”

The latest proposal would add 40 minutes a day to more than 50 elementary, middle, and K-8 schools over the next three years. The plan is scheduled for a vote Wednesday by the Boston Teachers Union. Once fully implemented, the change would cost $12.5 million annually.

Currently, 38 of Boston’s 128 schools have an extended day, according to the school system.

The question of why some schools have done well with expanded time and others have not is complex. Success or failure does not seem to necessarily correlate with how many minutes were added. Some schools, for instance, that added as much as two hours a day have run into problems, while others that added just a half hour boosted their fortunes.

The National Center for Time and Learning, a Boston nonprofit specializing in the effort, recommends 300 additional hours annually to allow for a mix of academic interventions and enrichment, as well as opportunities to take part in the arts, athletics, and other electives.

But achieving results with those extras depends on other factors, too, such as strong school leadership, a committed staff, and a thoughtful plan. That plan, they say, also should include time for staff to mentor one another, analyze student data, and develop lessons based on the changing needs of their students.

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“We know more now than 10 years ago about how time should be used,” said Jennifer Davis, the center’s cofounder and president. “Boston is eager to learn and ensure these schools use best practices to embark on these changes” to the school day.

The failure of longer school days to save struggling schools goes back at least six years. For example:

■  In September, the state threatened to take over the Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury, citing chronically low achievement four years after extending its day by an hour.

■  In October 2013, the state placed the Dever and Holland elementary schools into receivership because of chronically low MCAS scores. The Dever had added an hour to its day in 2010, while the Holland added a half hour the same year.

■  In 2013, the state threatened to take over English High and the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, which had extended their days, because of low performance.

■  In 2012, the state cut funding for extended days at the Timilty Middle School — a pioneer in the movement since the 1980s — and the Umana Academy because of low MCAS scores. State reviews found the schools were not effectively implementing their plans.

■  In 2009, the School Committee, following a recommendation from then-Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, approved eliminating extended days at 10 low-achieving schools because the extra hour of daily instruction mostly yielded disappointing results.

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If the latest initiative is approved, Boston school officials hope to avoid those missteps. The proposal calls for phasing in a group of 15 to 20 schools each year for the next three years. That scenario would allow the school system to more closely examine the plans, which are being developed by individual schools, and give the green light first to those that are in the best position to implement the plan, McDonough said.

As an example of a smooth implementation, school officials point to the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in the North End, which added an hour to its school day this year. The extra time has enabled the Eliot to provide students with more enrichment in academics, the arts, and other electives.

On Monday morning, 25 third-graders built and programmed motorized cars out of Legos in a robotics class. Students said they did not mind the longer school day.

“Time goes by fast,” said John D’Amico, 8.

As the students buzzed the cars around the classroom, their regular classroom teacher, Holly McPartlin, mentored a new teacher downstairs, observing her teach and then providing feedback.

Principal Traci Walker Griffith said the school spent a lot of time talking to the staff and community in developing an extended day that met the needs of its students. Part of that outreach led to a school day that runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., allowing students to get home before sunset.

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Other schools in Boston have flourished. Orchard Gardens K-8 and Trotter Elementary schools, for instance, leveraged its extra time as well as other interventions to transform their schools into higher-performing ones, prompting the state to remove a “underperforming” status in fall 2013.

UP Education Network, a Boston nonprofit that specializes in school turnarounds, also experienced dramatic gains in MCAS scores after taking over the management of two low-achieving schools in South Boston and Dorchester.

But sustaining momentum and gains can be a challenge.

The Edwards Middle School in Charlestown added two hours to its day nearly a decade ago as part of a state-funded initiative, and MCAS scores eventually rose. The school became the poster child for the success of the extended-day movement in Massachusetts.

But performance has been sliding as the Edwards grapples with a high turnover of principals. In September, the state warned it would pull funding for the extended day if academic achievement did not rebound.

Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union, said he could not predict the outcome of Wednesday’s vote, but he said the proposal has the unanimous support of the union’s leadership.

“I can say without equivocation both sides want this to work and want to carve out space for each school to make the best use of time for their needs,” Stutman said of the union and the school system. “A lot of schools are pressed for time. This will give them time to grow and flourish.”

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RELATED COVERAGE:

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Teachers’ union, schools agree to add learning time, Walsh says


James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.