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Salem exploring longer school day to improve underperformance

Posted by Terri Ogan  January 25, 2013 09:16 AM

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Salem kindergartener Tessa Udy loves school. She loves it so much that her mother, Emily, doesn’t think she would notice if she stayed for an extra hour each day. That possibility of an extended school day may become a reality for the 5-year-old.

City and school officials in Salem are actively exploring options to rectify the growing issue of underperformance in five of the city’s schools. One of those options, along with additional tutoring, is to adopt an expanding learning time program, an initiative spearheaded by the National Center on Time and Learning.

The program, which was introduced to the city at a community meeting Thursday night, aims to improve student achievement and enable a well-rounded education through remodeling school schedules and ultimately extending the school day.

“I’ve been here two years now, so when I had gotten here, that was when the severity of the problem became public and much more evident,” said Stephen Russell, the Salem public schools superintendent. “Since then we’ve been challenged with trying to turn around the schools.”

Bentley Elementary School was designated a Level 4, which is next to the bottom, based on a lack of performance and improvement in readings, math, and some science skills, Russell said. Four other schools were identified last year as on the brink of hitting Level 4. Those schools are Salem High, Nathaniel Bowditch, Collins Middle School, and Carlton Elementary.

Due to the gravity of the situation, city and school officials are taking action.

For the last six weeks or so, the mayor and superintendent, among others, have been working with the NCTL on different options for implementing the expanding learning time program within the school district. Assimilating the new program could mean adding activities that a traditional school day lacks time for, such as teaching Mandarin and incorporating Lego robotics.

Logistics of creating a new school schedule with added time begins with organizing a school redesign team, which would come up with a new schedule entailing addition school sessions. Other steps would be to survey teachers and parents and hold any necessary meetings to smooth out kinks within the design.

“We’re hoping that this is a jumping off point to have engaged conversations with students and staff to work through those issues,” Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said. “Like any new initiative the devil’s always in the details, but it’s clear that we have some models we can work off of and certainly the success that adding time to the school day could mean for Salem and it’s clear from results in other places that it could have tremendous value here as well.”

Fall River, Boston, Chelsea, Brockton, and Greenfield are just a few districts in Massachusetts that have adopted the expanding learning time program.

According to Jennifer Davis, cofounder and president of the NCTL, there has been significant growth within those schools.

“If you look at the data from those schools, it’s very reassuring, very exciting,” Davis said in a presentation Thursday night. “We have found that if you compare expanded time schools serving low poverty kids in particular, with traditional schools serving those same populations, you see significant growth within those expanded time schools.”

Such growth has occurred in Fall River, which recently closed its achievement gap with the state, Davis added.

Although data provided by NCTL shows success and improvement within various schools, there are some concerns with the program.

Maybe some children don’t need enhanced learning and extended school days. Bus and other transportation is an issue as well.

Emily Udy is worried about her daughter getting fatigued and missing out on family time.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom so I usually value the time I have with my child,” Udy said. “My tendency is to have some questions about it, however I think the data is sort of convincing.”

As of now, the city’s next steps are to poll the staff and parents at each school in the district, followed by identifying one or two schools to implement starting in September 2013.

“I think it’s a positive step in the process of school improvement in Salem,” Russell said. “It’s not the final step, but a positive one.”

Terri Ogan can be reached at oganglobe@gmail.com.

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