Extended school day: Extended dilemma

August. It’s the beginning of the school year. Smelly markers, chart paper, class rosters…bring it on! I was pumped and eager to begin my new journey in fifth grade.

After being on personal leave for a year to work as the Educator in Residence at the University of Central Florida, I was ready to dive back into classroom life. I missed the hugs. I missed the struggles. I missed the camaraderie. I missed my little learners…it was time to return to the place that I loved.

I traipsed out to the mailbox to find a letter from my new school waiting inside. I eagerly ripped it open and laid my eyes upon news I wasn’t expecting…my school was holding an emergency faculty meeting the following Monday.

What?! Panic set in as I wondered what the cryptic message meant for me and my future students.

The ominous Monday arrived. As I sat in the school media center, I soaked in the looks on the teachers’ faces around me. I could see I wasn’t the only one who was slightly nervous. Word in the teacher’s lounge was that we were on the bottom 100 performing elementary schools in the state. And there was a new state statute in town. This law mandated an extended school day for these 100 schools.

Moments later we realized it was true…our principal dutifully told us that in regards to our standardized reading gains, we were a whopping number 88 in the bottom 100. We would be moving to an extended school day.

An extended day? Won’t the teachers get fatigued? Won’t the kids get fatigued? What supports would be offered? And won’t this be the cause for even more of a laser-like focus on the standardized assessment? A million questions swirled through my head, complimented by an equally active and questioning heart.

Extended days are the core of the U.S. Department of Education’s reform, but they have a mixed-bag of opinions and research behind them. There has been some success with a group of urban schools in Massachusetts, but there is additional funding for the day with a grant, allowing for additional pay for teachers and enrichment programs by community organizations. On the opposite end, parent groups in Chicago Public Schools have been demanding meetings and more research about the longer school days, wanting proof that it will help their students and that it is implemented correctly.

And who knew? One hour later, many of my questions had been answered. And I have to say…as of now, I’m all about extended day. I drank the Kool-Aid. I’m on board.

Why, you may ask, the change of heart? At the core if it—great leaders. Thank goodness for administration who gets the inner-workings of a classroom. Even though our school district had found out from the state the week before (and mind you, two weeks before teachers returned to school), there was a solid plan in place. Including one that addressed my biggest fear—support.

This support included:

  1.  An extra half hour of art, music, and p.e. for our students. Hello, right brain!
  2. A whole hour of planning with our team. One whole hour! That could lead toward meaningful data analysis, thoughtful lesson planning, and even time to delve into lesson study.  And I’m going to be honest here…in my eight years teaching, I have NEVER had a common planning time with my whole team. Imagine the possibilities.
  3. An extra hour of reading instruction.  This would equate to five hours a week, about twenty hours a month, almost 180 hours a year extra. Boy, oh boy! And with extra time, I could implement fun and meaningful fluency practices. Reader’s Theater. Inquiry-based research projects. Extra time for them to read independently. I would have an extra hour to help them fall in love with books.
  4. Additional teachers for their specials classes. This means more adults to mentor and care for our students.
  5. Compensation for our extra hours. We would be paid to work the longer day. I was feeling like a professional.

So, I experienced a change of heart in a brief hour. I was converted. I saw how this could be the lever to something powerful for our students.

But then it hit me like a ton of bricks. We were number 88 of 100 schools, with the 100 under the mandate for the extended day. What happens after a year, when we get off the “naughty list?” When our supports are taken out from underneath us? What effects will that have on the school, the community, and on our students?

So I’m torn. I see the benefits of this mandate, but I worry about the downside. What happens after we “make the grade” and lose the supports that are helping our students achieve?

This reminds me of something in my life. I am an avid gardener. With my travel schedule, affinity for flitting from state-to-state, and inability to leave work at a decent hour, I have discovered that my garden suffers the consequences. It wilts from lack of water, weeding, and a decreased amount of tender loving care. But I discovered a way to support my roses, pentas, and passion flower, bringing them back to life.

I installed a micro-irrigation system on a timer, watering my garden consistently. A neighbor volunteered to help keep an eye on my yard, lending a hand if things get too unkempt. Another neighbor mows a small patch of yard for me, between our houses. Extra supports have made my garden thrive. It is nurtured.

But what would happen if those supports were removed? My grass would turn back into a scraggly pigmy forest, my plumbago and marigolds would shrink to the ground, and things would return back to the way they were…wilted and wild.

So how do we make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to our schools and our students once we remove the supports? How do we keep our schools thriving?

I haven’t been able to wrap my head around that yet, but I am aware of the looming and impending threat. And I’m positive that with a sound and dedicated staff, partnerships with all stakeholders, and an awareness of what may come, we can start brainstorming solutions. We can find a way to keep our garden of learners nurtured long after the supports are removed.

How do we make extended day work? And what does the research say? I’m headed to the garden now, but check out my next post for the details…

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