Longer school day: Fad or revolution?

Bay State project is showing early signs of success

With a longer day, Jacob Hiatt Magnet School in Worcester can have visitors like Marie Thibeault from Old Sturbridge Village. With a longer day, Jacob Hiatt Magnet School in Worcester can have visitors like Marie Thibeault from Old Sturbridge Village. (LISA POOLE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / February 17, 2008

WORCESTER - His clothing was 19th century, but Robert Jellen was at the forefront of a modern-day educational experiment when he donned a straw hat, cravat, and gold pocket watch recently for a day of teaching at Jacob Hiatt Magnet School.

Routine visits by Jellen and other employees of Old Sturbridge Village are possible in part because Hiatt has an eight-hour school day. It's one of just 18 schools statewide trying out a longer school day, so it affords Jellen's 1800s justice of the peace the time to lead animated fifth-graders through a complicated case of dog bites old woman.

The question is whether this is part of an educational revolution or a short-lived fad.

The two-year-old "expanded learning time" project has shown early signs of success and gathered high-profile support, including from Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

But the idea has also met parent and teacher resistance, and significant expansion would come with enormous costs.

In Massachusetts, if just 25 percent of all schools implement expanded days, it would cost an additional $300 million annually, based on its cost of $1,300 per student. Bringing the program to every school would cost more than $1 billion, according to estimates from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

In a state staring at a $1.3 billion deficit for the next fiscal year, that kind of money is nowhere in sight.

"The cost is the number one concern," said Elena Silva of the Education Sector, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "It is an incredibly expensive endeavor to do this, to do it well, to do it in a way that might matter."

Expanding the school day has long been seen as a way to give the neediest students more class time and activities and to improve academics for all students. But Massachusetts is the only state funding longer days in multiple districts, though New York and Rhode Island are considering doing the same.

"Most states are watching, I can tell you that," said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation said the schools have been so poorly run for so long that it will be extremely difficult to convince people a massive investment in longer days is worthwhile.

The funding constraints on the program are evident. For the next year, Patrick has allotted $26 million for expanded learning in his proposed budget, which would double last year's funding and cover 18 schools slated to begin expansion in the fall. But another 16 schools hoping to start an expanded day in the fall have submitted preliminary plans, and the funding won't be there to approve all of them.

Meanwhile, schools in 17 more districts are hoping to start expanded learning in 2009.

Advocates clearly foresee a day when a broad adoption of a longer school day will be an essential part of preparing students to compete in a world where students in most other countries spend more time in class.

"Everybody will give a speech about how they want to improve our education system, they want change, they want it to be bold. This is the moment when the actions will meet the rhetoric," said Chris Gabrieli, cofounder of Mass2020, which is working with the state to develop expanded learning.

For today, advocates are out to prove more time works when it's implemented well. State money to expand the day by a minimum of 25 percent is awarded only to schools whose plans are vetted by the Department of Education.

Results from the first year were encouraging to advocates. Overall, schools with longer days saw improvements in student scores in math, English, and science at all grade levels.

Gabrieli, a successful businessman who ran for governor in 2006, figures the state needs at least four years to properly assess how the experiment is working. But with uncertainty about future funding and expansion, the focus right now is ensuring that what's in place is effective, Gabrieli said.

The Hiatt school has many teaching partners, including the Worcester Art Museum and the Worcester Tornadoes baseball team. Besides enhanced history, literacy, and other academic offerings, students can take swimming and judo.

Gayle Petty, who has 11-year-old and 9-year-old sons at Hiatt, said her children were a bit fatigued after their first few expanded days, but now they love it because there's time for so many more classes and activities.

"They don't even understand they're learning," she said. "I think it's a great experience."

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