In 2013, 13 Syracuse, N.Y., schools added 70 minutes onto the school day in the hopes of helping students in low-performing schools improve their academics.
Bellevue Elementary was one of those schools. Last year, Bellevue students saw a 6.8 percent increase in their English/language arts state test scores. The school has 488 students in kindergarten through 5th grade.
Sarah Cupelli took over as principal at Bellevue during the 2015-16 school year. At that time, the school had a community partner that came in to help the teachers utilize the extra time. So, for example, students would work on an enrichment activity with the community group while teachers worked together on collaborative planning or analyzing student data. This would take place throughout the day not just during the extra time.
This year, the school has decided to go it alone without the community partner with teachers overseeing the enrichment activities.
We recently talked to Bellevue’s principal about the impact of adding additional time to the school day and how the school is handling things without a community partner.
Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
So how is the school day working out now with your teachers overseeing the enrichment activities?
The first 30 minutes of the day is when all teachers do their collaborative planning, data analysis, and professional development as a full school community before the kids arrive. That allows us to have staff across all areas together for that. Then we have one hour for math and ELA interventions for students, so they are able to receive intervention or acceleration in ELA and math depending on their levels. That’s during the day. In the last hour of our day, that’s when we’re doing all of our enrichment, and we’re using our own staff to do that.
How does that work exactly?
Staff were able to identify an enrichment activity that they would like to offer our students, and we are on an eight-week cycle for that. Every eight weeks all of the staff present to our students in our auditorium the different options they have for enrichment, and then students are able to vote and choose the activities that they would like to participate in.
How do you balance the enrichment with intervention?
It’s a six-day cycle. Every other day is either enrichment or math intervention. But then every day kids receive ELA intervention.
You’re also a big proponent of personalized learning. How does that work under this schedule?
In a nutshell, it’s really meeting students and staff, meeting their needs and providing them instruction and professional development that addresses their needs. In using the personalized learning, having student choice in enrichment, that has been a creative way that we have tried to personalize that for students. During our intervention times, we are really personalizing the types of interventions that students are getting through having really targeted meetings where all staff are talking about kids’ data and being very purposeful about the instruction that happens in that time. Just having that personalized mindset across our school where everything we do we’re using data, and we’re really trying to meet everyone’s needs—both the students and the staff.
How important is data to what you’re doing?
It is highly critical to every single thing we do. When we’re meeting the needs of students and staff, it just sets everyone up for success. That’s number one. Number two, we want to make sure that every minute of our day is maximized, so we need to be so intentional about the decisions that we’re making. Number three, it really takes the gray out of everything that we do because it goes back to the rationale for the decisions that we’re making. So students, parents, staff—they all understand why decisions are being made. We even did student-led, parent-teacher conferences this year where our 3rd through 5th grade students led the conferences with their families and were explaining their data to their families, so that they even know for themselves what it means for them as a learner.
How is not having a community partner affecting your school finance wise?
Last year, the community partner was being paid to come in, and the teachers were also being paid because they’re working an extra hour of the day. This year, in moving away from the community partner and strategically creating a schedule that made teachers available to teach enrichment, we had a cost savings on not having the community partner.
But you’re still reaching out to the community. How does that work?
We still have groups coming in and supporting during enrichment, but they’re not paid to do that. One of my teachers that’s doing a cooking enrichment class, which is very popular, she has a partnership with Syracuse University where they have students coming in on Fridays to do ‘Books and Cooks’ with the kids. It’s really an awesome way to kind of bring them in to help support the program as part of their coursework, which does not cost the school any money. So even though we don’t have a community partner, depending on what activity the teacher is doing, they’re still contacting people out in the community to support us.
Other than cooking, what are some of your students’ favorite enrichment activities?
They love the LEGO robotics, which uses a lot of coding skills that they’re learning. Students are problem-solving together using LEGOs and also have an online software where they’re able to create and design things, which they really love. We’ve received feedback that graphic design is very popular among our older students where they’re designing things using the technology. One of our offerings that’s been coming increasingly more popular is yoga. We think about students applying ELA and math skills, but we’re also giving them opportunities to apply social-emotional skills such as self-regulation and those kinds of things, which the kids are getting very excited about and they’re seeing that it’s helping them to be more responsive to their own feelings during the day.
Do you think more schools should consider a longer school day?
I came from another school district that didn’t have extended-day schools. As soon as I saw the schedule here that would allow us to do intensive intervention time with kids, and they wouldn’t have to miss core content or other subjects that they really loved and [we’d] also to be able to provide them that enrichment with student choice where they’re able to apply the skills that they’re learning in ELA and math in another way and address real-world problems, I was so excited that this extra time allowed us to give them those opportunities.
Photo: Students at Bellevue Elementary in Syracuse, N.Y., pose for a photo after taking part in an event to recognize Child Abuse Prevention Month. Photo Courtesy Sarah Cupelli
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.