As districts move to address gaps in students’ learning post-pandemic, an often-overlooked approach is adding more time to the school day or academic year, sometimes known as “extended learning time.”
It can be a tough sell that meets resistance from both parents and teachers, but often yields positive results across student demographic groups.
There’s no firm national data about how many districts have employed extended learning time in response to the pandemic because the measure is usually lumped in with other, optional programs like tutoring or after school programs in analyses of how districts are spending their COVID-19 relief.
But some districts have added the required time and seen success. Gordon Parks Elementary, a public charter school in Kansas City, Missouri, created a year-round calendar by adding 31 school days. Chief Executive Officer Kirsten Lipari-Braman said students have not only made strides academically, but also improved their social-emotional skills.
Ector County Independent School District in Texas added 11 days to its calendar. Then in 2020, it rolled out a 30-day summer program for elementary school students. Though it’s optional, Superintendent Scott Muri said he had buy-in from parents and teachers who see the program as a fun opportunity, rather than a punishment for falling behind. The enrollment is about four times greater than the district’s traditional summer school offerings, he said.
Here are four tips from Lipari-Braman and Muri on how to build support for more learning time.
1. Be clear about your ‘why’
Parents and teachers are more likely to buy in to the idea of a longer school day or year if they understand why it’s important and the anticipated benefits for students, Muri said.
He suggested being transparent with district-level student achievement data, and explaining what it means on a practical level.
“That data that are generated by the students that you serve. Let that be a driver for your ‘why’ and share that with your community,” Muri said. “Making sure that teachers and principals understand, then making sure Mom and Dad really understand what the need is based upon their own children is important.”
It can be uncomfortable to broadcast that there are needs or areas where students are struggling, but addressing those needs is more important than being comfortable, he added.
Another tip: Market extended learning time as an effort to push students forward academically, rather than as remediation.
Saying kids are behind can make parents (and students) defensive and more resistant to the program, Muri said. If framed as an opportunity, it may sound more appealing.
2. Include teachers in the planning process
The easiest way to get teachers on board is to include them in the planning process and take their feedback seriously, Muri said. It sets a positive tone for the initiative, and the teachers are less likely to experience burnout.
In Ector County, teachers came up with a plan to share the load of additional days in the summer. The model allows for one teacher to work for half of the program, then is tagged out in the second half to get a break.
“That has made for a lot of happy teachers and a good situation for kids,” Muri said.
Lipari-Braman said the work can feel less daunting if administrators give an overview of the year as a whole, noting that there are more frequent breaks.
Weaving opportunities for teachers to take mindfulness breaks throughout the day is another proactive step districts can take, she said. What those opportunities look like depends on the specific needs of the people in the school.
3. Make the additional time engaging and unique
Research has long suggested that additional learning time is most effective if it aligns with and complements the district’s curriculum. It should also have clear goals and relatively small class sizes, according to research from The Education Trust.
Muri’s district focuses the extra time around hands-on opportunities, particularly in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, to keep kids engaged. Each school or district will have different needs and interests, so what, exactly, the extra time looks like can, and should, vary, Muri said. But there are few people who know students’ needs better than their teachers, so drawing on their experience early in the planning process can help develop an effective program that feels exciting.
In a year-round calendar, like in Lipari-Braman’s school, the additional days are an extension of the school year, and are scheduled as such. The key is to be consistent, she said, and have a strong curriculum that teachers are well-trained to implement.
4. Track and share successes
Many districts used federal COVID-19 relief money to fund academic recovery strategies. When that money runs out, it’ll be important to find other ways to fund the additional time, if schools want it to continue.
The easiest way to do that is to publicly share the successes that come from the work, Muri said. Track students’ achievement data, and highlight the gains and progress they see, then share that with the community.
It’s helpful both to keep people interested, and to show other people who fund school budgets, like state lawmakers, that it’s worth the investment, Muri said. It may also help to take the information directly to the lawmakers and have one-on-one conversations with them to answer questions and share more in-depth information.