Faced with growing pressure to improve student achievement in the state’s poorest public school districts, leaders of the region’s Gateway Cities are appealing to legislators for the funding they need to add more hours, days, or weeks to their academic calendars.
They hope to ensure that middle school students, whose academic performance has lagged behind that of their younger counterparts, get the reading, writing, and math lessons they need without having to give up music, art, or exercise.
“When schools get expanded learning time, educators can move from STEM — focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math — to STEAM, and include the arts,’’ said Revere Superintendent Paul S. Dakin, who oversees three schools that have longer school days.
Dakin and 21 other Gateway City leaders — including city officials and school superintendents in Chelsea, Everett, Haverhill, Lynn, Malden, and Salem — have sent a letter to Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, urging the Legislature to support Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to increase funding for expanded learning time, especially in middle schools.
“We believe that this strategy is critical for our students,’’ the March 20 letter stated. “We know that the students in our cities are not keeping up with some of their peers in higher-income communities.’’
At Garfield, one of three middle schools in Revere, students have made steady gains on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System
exams since the fall of 2008, when the school day was stretched from six to 8.5 hours.
“It makes for a richer day for the kids and, I believe, a more meaningful day,’’ Dakin said. “We can build back into the curriculum some of the things we had to push out because of the greater attention being given to the core subjects, due to the intense focus on MCAS.’’
Students write more essays, solve more word problems, and get more personalized instruction.
The result: More than half of the school’s sixth-graders now score in the proficient or advanced categories in math. Four years ago, 23 percent fell short of earning a passing score. In English Language Arts, more than two-thirds of sixth-graders are earning scores in the top two categories; four years ago, fewer than half demonstrated proficiency or better.
Given such results, the expanded learning time movement is gaining momentum, with Patrick seeking an additional $5 million in fiscal 2014, which begins July 1, and an additional $70 million annually in subsequent years to increase the number of middle schools with extended days.
“The governor’s proposal offers a whole new slate of tools that districts can utilize, opening a dialogue in our communities not just about whether we should have more classroom time, but about how schools would utilize that time,’’ said Saeyun Lee, policy director for the state’s Executive Office of Education.
“If we can give more middle schools the opportunity to engage in these conversations by providing this funding in the fiscal 2014 budget, we can give them powerful tools for closing achievement gaps.’’
This fiscal year, the state is spending $14.2 million to extend learning time at 19 elementary, middle, and high schools across the Commonwealth that have redesigned their academic calendar, giving some 10,500 students in 10 districts about 300 additional hours of learning. Currently, the participating schools receive $1,300 per pupil to implement their plans.
Six schools in the region receive funding through the Expanded Learning Time Initiative: Joseph A. Browne Middle School in Chelsea; the Ferryway and Salemwood schools in Malden; and Garfield Middle School and the A.C. Whelan and William McKinley elementary schools in Revere.
“On the heels of adopting expanding learning time, the Salemwood and Ferryway schools have improved dramatically,’’ said Malden Mayor Gary Christenson. “They’ve gone from being Level 3 schools to Level 1. We couldn’t be more enthused about what ELT has meant here in Malden.’’
Although the program is not without its challenges — teachers want more pay for working longer hours, and often, additional support staff is needed — Patrick’s proposal is being championed by business leaders, state Education Secretary Matthew H. Malone, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Stand for Children, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, and Massachusetts 2020, a Boston-based organization that has worked since 2000 to expand the school year.
Chelsea Superintendent Mary M. Bourque and other educators say the goal of the initiative is not to simply log more time in the classroom. The goal, they say, is more learning.
“Moving forward, we can’t work within the same time frame we’ve been using for 200 years in education and expect that we will have our students 21st-century college- and career-ready,’’ she said.
Paul F. Toner, president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, said: “We need to provide urban kids with the same summer and after-school opportunities that suburban parents are able to provide their children. They all sit for the same MCAS exam, and they must all meet the same graduation requirements. That’s like having the same expectations for runners in a race where some are still at the starting line while others are already halfway around the track; the kids in our Gateway Cities are starting behind their peers.’’
Gateway Cities are urban centers with populations ranging from 35,000 to 250,000; a median household income below the state average of $65,981; and a below-average number of residents with college degrees.
The percentage of students living in poverty in Gateway Cities is 60 percent or above — more than three times higher than in other Massachusetts districts. In addition, nearly 50 percent of the students are African-American or Hispanic.
Statewide, there are 26 Gateway Cities, including Chelsea, Everett, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, Peabody, Revere, and Salem. Of those, only three — Chelsea, Malden, and Revere — receive state funding for expanded learning time. However, some schools — including several charter schools and the Saltonstall School in Salem — have added classroom hours on their own. Statewide, 90 schools have embraced longer days, a longer academic year, or both.
“We’re talking about taking action to prevent summer learning loss, and offering more opportunities for teacher planning and collaboration,’’ said Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll, who has taken a lead role in the push for legislative support. “Not every child learns the same way. The question is, how do we address that? With expanded learning time, we can offer tutoring to students who need extra support and provide opportunities for those kids who are excelling and need more of a challenge.’’