Low-achieving schools given new job: Lengthen school day

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Under a new directive from the School Reform Board, elementary schools with exceptionally low test scores will be required to extend their school day next year.

The goal is to increase instruction time in core subjects—reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies—to 300 minutes per day. Currently, elementary students receive an average of 244 minutes of instruction in core subjects, according to data Chicago supplied the state for school report cards.

However, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas believes that number is inflated. “I venture to say that it’s closer to 200 minutes.”

Blondean Davis, director of the office of schools and regions, agrees. “Instruction doesn’t begin right at 9 a.m. You’ve got at least 10 minutes where kids are taking their coats off, getting settled and so on,” explains Davis, who is spearheading efforts to help schools implement the plan. “Then there’s a 20-minute lunch, bathroom breaks, recess, art, music, gym, library … By the time you add up all these things you need to do in a typical day, you get about 215 minutes.”

The new directive applies to schools that are in remediation, on the state’s academic watch list or “otherwise struggling,” Davis says. “If your scores are OK or coming up, you need do nothing.” Currently, 21 schools are on remediation, and 126 are on the watch list.

Adds Davis, “What we’re trying to do is provide what children have in the suburbs.” In general, suburban districts spend more time teaching core subjects, and a 1992 Catalyst survey of 45 suburban Cook County districts found that the average elementary school day is about a half-hour longer than Chicago’s.

Davis, herself a former principal, is now making the rounds of regional offices to explain schools’ options for fulfilling the requirement. The meetings come in the wake of a Feb. 21 letter, signed by Vallas and Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James, to all elementary school principals, telling them they “should plan to purchase an additional hour of instruction time with an emphasis on 300 minutes devoted to the core curriculum.”

Vallas letter confusing

The lack of specifics left principals confused; those contacted by Catalyst questioned whether a change would be mandatory and how it would be implemented.

“I don’t think that extending the school day is something a school can do in a vacuum,” says one North Side principal who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m concerned about the impact on kids who are bused. Are they going to change [busing] schedules? These are things schools need to know.”

Noting that busing logistics “are already a problem,” Vallas says that additional difficulties will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), says the confusion over the plan “has caused some real credibility problems for him [Vallas].”

When principals called regional offices to get more specifics, she says, they basically were told, “Don’t worry about it.” Adds Woestehoff, “Schools are getting used to the idea that Vallas comes up with ideas all the time. They also think he’ll change his mind in a month or two.”

Following are the options Davis says principals can use:

Use discretionary funds—either federal Title I or state Chapter 1—to add an hour to the school day. The board is promoting this as the surest way to meet the requirement; but by its own estimates, this option would cost many schools a fourth or more of their state Chapter 1 budgets.

Davis says that according to the board’s budget office, it would cost a school with 600 students and class sizes of 31 about $142,000 a year. On average, elementary schools receive $500,000 a year in state Chapter 1 money. The cost of adding an hour would be greater for schools that have added teachers to reduce class sizes and for schools with many veteran teachers, who earn higher salaries.

Vallas acknowledges that schools likely will complain about having to spend discretionary dollars. But in a recent talk to the Chicago League of Women Voters, he said, “There’s not a school where I can’t find fifty, sixty, seventy thousand dollars in questionable state Chapter 1 spending. … One school has $70,000 unspent.”

Assign teachers to staggered shifts. Specialists such as art, music and P.E. teachers would start later than regular classroom teachers, and children would get these extras only after the core subjects had been taught.

However, this approach would work only at schools with large faculties, Davis acknowledges. The change also requires a waiver of the Chicago Teachers Union contract; waivers need approval by 51 percent of a school’s faculty.

Principals contacted by Catalyst were skeptical about this option.

“High schools might be able to do it, but in elementary schools you can’t,” says Reva Hairston, principal of Terrell Elementary. “Everyone’s in one classroom all day, except for lunch.” Most of Terrell’s discretionary money has paid for extra classroom teachers to lower class sizes and for classroom aides, rather than specialists whose shifts could be staggered.

Return to the traditional schedule of a 45-minute lunch and dismissal at 3:15 p.m. Currently, most elementary schools dismiss at 2:30 p.m. To accomplish this, teachers combine their two 10-minute breaks for a 20-minute lunch with their children and then leave school 45 minutes early— technically, taking their official 45-minute lunch period at the end of the day.

LaSalle Language Academy is one of about 150 schools that have maintained the traditional schedule. In 2:30 schools, says Principal Amy Weiss Narea, “a 20-minute lunch extends to 30 minutes with getting the kids lined up to go to the lunchroom and so on.”

Narea also believes students receive significantly more instruction at 3:15 schools because “you’re not rushing through the day.” Often, she adds, teachers use part of their lunch break to tutor kids who are behind—further increasing teaching time.

At a recent meeting with Region 2 principals, about 15 or 20 said they may revert to the traditional schedule, Davis reports.

Launch extended-day programs.

One example is already in place at Terrell, which has a mandatory after-school tutoring program three times a week. All students must stay an extra two hours for tutoring in the core subjects; the sessions are staffed by teachers—including a number of younger faculty—who have opted to take on the extra work. In this case, students get six extra hours of teaching per week—more than they would get if the school day were extended an hour.

“If you talk to principals, many of them are doing things like this already,” says Hairston. Initially, Hairston feared she might have to scrap the program to pay for a longer day. But, says Davis, programs such as Terrell’s “absolutely” meet the requirement.

One option the board isn’t promoting is scrapping or taking time away from art, music and other extras “You can do it,” says Davis, “but we’re not recommending it.”