Seven Connecticut schools to extend teaching day

Washington -- More than 3,100 Connecticut students will have a longer school day starting in the 2013-'14 school year, part of an experiment in five states to boost scholastic achievement.

"We know our teachers and students need more time in the classroom," said Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Malloy and Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor were in Washington Monday to accept the first of several annual $300,000 grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning. The money will be used to plan, and later fund, a school year that will grow by at least 300 hours in seven Connecticut schools. They are located in East Hartford, Meriden and New London.

O'Connell Elementary in East Hartford and Casmir Pulaski Elementary and John Barry Elementary in Meriden will be involved in the pilot program, as well as New London's  Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, Jennings Elementary, Nathan Hale Elementary and Winthrop Elementary.

Some educators hope the initiative will eventually extend to all schools nationwide.

"This is the kernel of a national movement," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The idea is to help low-income and underachieving students who don't have the benefit of tutors or other afterschool programs to help them.

"The idea that we can tolerate different levels of achievement does not make any sense," Malloy said.

Schools in Massachusetts, New York, Colorado and Tennessee are also part of the experiment.

"It's an extraordinary idea whose time has come," Duncan said.

But extending the school day is not without problems. Not only does it result in increased teacher payroll -- as well as other costs involved in keeping schools open longer -- but it could also require renegotiating contracts with teachers' unions to allow some teachers to arrive at work earlier and allow others to stay later.

Lengthening the school day may also require teachers' unions to allow organizations like the YMCA and parent volunteers to provide before and after school activities that would count as part of the school day.

Malloy said he hoped Connecticut's unions would agree to necessary changes.

Connecticut Education Association Executive Director Mark Waxenberg said he could support the initiative because it is planned in collaboration with teachers.

"We're not afraid of the adventure because we are going to be involved," Waxenberg said.

Some of the Connecticut schools in the pilot program already have extended hours, including East Hartford's O'Connell Elementary.

Nathan Quesnel, superintendent of East Hartford schools, said O'Connell students began coming to school 1½ hour earlier last year. To meet the new standards, however, their day will have to be stretched a bit longer.

"We're still debating whether that extra time will be in the morning or the afternoon," Quesnel said.

But some educators say the quality of the time spent in school is more important than the quantity of time.

For example, Federal School Improvement Grants -- which funneled $3 billion into low-achieving schools, mostly to increase instructional time -- have shown mixed results. Initial U.S. Department of Education results released last month show that performance slipped in more than one-third of the schools that received funding.

Mirror education writer Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this story.