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Extended school day long overdue

Published December 04. 2012 4:00AM

This is our reaction to word that New London will be part of a pilot program to determine if longer learning time in public schools can improve student performance - wonderful and about time.

Mid-afternoon dismissals are a relic of bygone time in America, as is extended summer vacation. Long ago students left school early because they were needed back at the farm to help with chores. A once agrarian nation likewise required children home in summer because they were a labor source. As the nation industrialized, most students came home to a stay-at-home mom during a time when one blue-collar salary could support a family and women had fewer career options.

Today keeping kids in school a couple of more hours will often only mean two less hours of them sitting in front of the TV watching any number of mindless programs available on hundreds of channels.

Yet tradition proves resistant to change. Even as academic challenges increase because there is more to learn, global competition grows, and traditional school hours fail to match well with an age of two working parents, still school systems continue do it the way it's always been done.

In addition to overcoming inertia, there are practical challenges to extending the school day. It must be kept interesting. Two more hours of traditional classroom teaching will leave many kids bored or mentally tired.

On the teaching side of the equation educators recognize that while teaching is rewarding, it is also challenging and exhausting, and adding a couple of hours of instruction to a school day is daunting. Teachers want to know how added hours will be structured so as not to burn them out. There are issues of compensation to resolve. The seven-day strike by Chicago teachers in September focused in large part on longer school days.

The opportunities and challenges are why this national pilot program makes sense. The goal is to add at least 300 hours of learning time to the calendar in about 40 schools across the country, affecting around 20,000 students, including 3,100 in Connecticut. Participation of schools in low-income, academically underperforming communities is a priority. Schools partaking in the experiment will have flexibility in how they approach the expanded school day. Educators hope to demonstrate that increasing lesson time will improve academic performance and, in the process, learn which approaches for boosting that academic performance work best.

Five states are participating in the program, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Colorado and Tennessee. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who pushed a public education reform package through the legislature in the last session, joined U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in announcing the program in Washington Monday.

The Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning will help underwrite the pilot program. The U.S. Department of Education is also shifting money to states, like Connecticut, that received waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements after demonstrating evidence of education reform and innovation.

New London, in turn, became one of three Connecticut communities whose application to participate in the extended day experiment won approval, the other two being East Hartford and Meriden. An excited New London Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer said the program will begin at the Winthrop Magnet and Jennings elementary schools this spring, with expansion to Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School likely next fall.

Dr. Fischer said the additional school programming will focus on academic enrichment and encourage development of high-level education skills. But these extended-school-day programs need to be engaging and interesting for students, not simply an extension of classroom instruction, he told us. Dr. Fischer pointed to drama instruction, science experiments and interaction with guest speakers as examples.

Like Secretary Duncan, we are excited about the prospects of this experiment being the kernel that gives growth to a national movement.

Town News

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