Published Online: January 11, 2010

Mass. Renewing Push for Longer School Days

Massachusetts is renewing its push to lengthen the school day, from adding more charter schools to appealing for federal grant money that could bring longer days to more traditional public schools.

Gov. Deval Patrick talked about the benefits of longer school days, especially in poorer and underperforming districts, during his campaign four years ago — but plummeting state revenues and dramatic budget cuts have made it hard to turn that vision into a reality.

For the current school year, there are just 22 so-called expanded learning time schools in 11 Massachusetts districts serving 12,000 students. That's out of a total of about 1,800 public schools statewide.

Expanded learning time schools have the freedom to add hours at the beginning or end of the day to accommodate the needs of students.

There are also another 62 charter schools in the state. Charter schools, which usually operate without union contracts and are freer to try new curriculum models, also typically have longer school days.

A bill working its way to Patrick's desk could bring longer hours to even more schools.

The bill would double the number of charter schools in the state's worst performing districts.

It would also allow for so-called "innovation schools" — schools that operate in the traditional public school system but are given more freedom to experiment with some of the strategies that have succeeded in charter schools, including longer days.

Patrick said the focus should be on giving schools the tools, freedom and resources they need to close a stubborn achievement gap between richer and poorer communities.

"Let's get out of the way and let's let the educators, the best educators, apply the best of their ideas to helping us deal with this achievement gap," Patrick told reporters this week.

Patrick hopes to extend the option of longer school days using part of an anticipated $250 million the state is eligible for through the Obama administration's Race to the Top initiative, designed to reward states that take innovative approaches to improve education.

Patrick said he hopes lawmakers will deliver a final version of the education bill to his desk by next week ahead of the Jan. 19 federal deadline.

Linda Nathan, co-headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, an extended learning time school, said the ability to offer longer hours is critical to the success of the school.

"We couldn't exist without it because we have both a full arts and a full academic curriculum," she said. "Some kids come in very early in the morning. Some kids stay very late."

She said longer school days make even more sense in elementary and middle schools where so many kids are already either in day care or participating in after-school programs.

Marc Kenen, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said charter schools are leading the way with longer school hours.

He said that's important for schools located in urban areas where many children don't have as much of a head start as students in suburbs.

"It's an essential component," he said. "Instead of the traditional six-hour day, most of our schools are at least a seven-hour day and in some cases eight or nine hours."

Although teacher unions have been skeptical of charter schools, they aren't opposed to longer school hours, as long as teachers are compensated for the extra time, according to Tom Gosnell, president of the Massachusetts branch of the American Federation of Teachers.

"We certainly support teachers getting additional salary for working the longer school day," he said, adding that longer school days are a trend that is spreading across the country.

"It's really grabbed people's attention nationally," he said. "It's hardly a Massachusetts issue solely."

If the state succeeds in winning the $250 million in federal grant dollars, Patrick said he'll use some of that money for longer days — targeting underperforming school districts first.

"There will be an application process and criteria," he said. "But, again, the Race to the Top is mainly to help us get at the achievement gap."

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