When it came time for Tyrone Almonte to decide where he wanted to go to high school, he had plenty of magnet schools to select from in the Hartford region.
He chose Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science — a school not only with significantly higher achievement rates than nearby schools but also one of a handful of schools in the state with a longer school day than the required state minimum.
“It’s stressful because you have to wake up early, but in the end it’s the better choice so it more than makes up for it,” the freshman said while passing between classes of what will be a one hour longer school day than if he went to another school.
By the end of the year, Almonte and his classmates will have spent 20 percent more time in the classroom than students in almost every other school in the state.
“Most school districts offer the minimum or near the minimum number of school days annually and that only a handful have average schools days longer than seven and one-half hours,” Judith Lohman, a legislative researcher, wrote in a recent report for state lawmakers.
This reality comes against the backdrop of public officials routinely declaring that more instructional time is needed for improved student outcomes.
“We spend a phenomenal amount of time talking about time on task… How can we allow more time where it’s needed?” Stratford school board member David R. Kennedy asked fellow members of the state task force looking at ways to close the achievement gap between low-income and minority and Caucasian students.
“Seat time makes a big difference,” echoed Miguel Cardona, co-chairman of the Achievement Gap Task Force and principal of an elementary school in Meriden.
But this same group’s recommendation last year to the legislature to extend time in the classroom failed to even made it out of the Education Committee. The State Board of Education has recommended since 2003 that districts extend their school day and school year to no avail.
“Despite [their policy] and available federal and state funding, the statewide average number of public school instructional days per year has remained at 181 days for the most recent seven years,” Lohman reported.
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told WNPR that he believes more time in the classroom works.
“We do know what the best practices are that will [turn around failing schools] — extended time is one of them,” Pryor said, pointing to an example from New York City. “They were able to extend the day …That was a way in which more resources, properly channeled, did lead to positive results.”
The Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, and the state’s superintendent association both have proposed increasing the school day in recent months.
Nearly half of the schools in the state open school the bare minimum and almost all the remaining schools build in no more than five extra days to cancel school for snow.
Five charter schools had students attend school three extra weeks on top of the minimum 180 days required during the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year for which the State Department of Education has data available. Six schools statewide — four charters and two Hartford-area magnets — have added an hour or more onto the traditional 7-and-a-half hour school day.
“Time is so tight. I wish all of our schools had this extra time,” said Anne McKernan, the assistant superintendent of the Capitol Region Education Council, while touring the Math and Science Academy, one of the six schools in the state with an extended day.
“It would be difficult to accomplish what they have without that extra time.”
An expensive initiative
Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield used to require their students to attend school nine hours a day. But it was costly, as teachers had to be paid more to make up for their added time in the classroom.
Soon after lengthening the day, CREC officials had to scale back time as they grappled with balancing their budget.
“We just didn’t have the funding for it anymore, so we had to cut it back,” said Bruce Douglas, the leader of the interdistrict magnet school system. “We were running a deficit.”
Douglas’s district has been able to keep two of its schools open for longer hours, and he hopes he is able to keep them in place even as budgets remain tight.
Millions in federal and state dollars have been dished out over the past several years for districts promising to increase instruction time. However, those grants are only available to the state’s very lowest-income and -achieving districts.
“The school day is not increasing because there’s only money for this for the worst-off schools” Douglas said.
Schools that did receive grants to increase performance through extended learning time had their initiatives outlined in their applications. Bridgeport intended to use some of the $4 million it received to bargain with the teachers’ union in exchange for longer days at three of their schools. New Haven promised to increase teacher salaries 10 percent for the added 11 school days and longer school days at one of their high schools.
Repeated requests to the State Department of Education to see how these grants have played out in increasing instruction time went unanswered.
In Bridgeport, Roosevelt Elementary School has made a “slight extension” to instruction by shaving time off lunch, but the school hours remain the same, said Principal Tania Kelley.
“I really wanted to have the teachers come in earlier, but it’s something that I couldn’t do at this time,” she said, noting that she still needs to approach the teachers’ union about the idea. If teachers come in at 8 a.m., they can use that time as their prep period and tack on another half hour of instruction during the school day.
“That’s something I’d like to do in our second year with the grant … The [School Improvement Grant] is not as fully implemented as we want it to be because we’re in such a deficit,” Kelley said.
Pressure to cut the calendar
Not only do many municipal leaders oppose the expansion of the required school day and year, but they also want officials to allow them to cut their calendar.
“We hear this consistently across the state,” said James Finley, of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “There’s a certain irony to this will to increase the school calendar, [state officials] want us to do more with less money.”
During former Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s tenure, local officials on her Municipal Mandate Board told her budget director the required calendar was an unfunded mandate that is often too expensive for them to live up to.
Several districts officials have warned they may have a difficult time fulfilling the 180-day, 900-hour requirement after they had to close their schools for days because of Tropical Storm Irene and a freak October snowstorm that knocked out power for days. But Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have said waivers would be hard to come by.
President Barack Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have repeatedly said they want to significantly increase the amount of time students attend school.
“Go ahead and boo me,” Duncan told middle and high school students in northeast Denver. “I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short.”
The grants Bridgeport, New Haven and six other high-need districts in the state received were allotted in Obama’s 2009 stimulus package to help district increase time in the classroom. But as Lohman’s report for state legislators points out, these and other grants have not even made a dent since so few schools participate.
The school calendar is tied to state requirements; Washington does not get involved in school calendars. Thirty states, including Connecticut, require 180 days and the remaining states a few days less, except Ohio, which requires the most at 182 days. Most state require fewer than 1,000 hours of instruction.
“Some schools, very few though, are extending the school day… as desperate as we need another hour,” said Robert Lynn Canaday, a retired professor from the University of Virginia’s Department of Leadership, Foundations & Policy Studies, which helped school districts in 44 states restructure their schedules. “I would say money is the main reason [time has remained the same]. It means changing transportation. It means paying teachers more.”
There is mixed research as to whether this added time would actually pay off. In Finland — whose students consistently test higher in reading, writing, and math achievement by international standards — students attend school for significantly fewer hours per year than their American counterparts.
But national and state officials and many experts are adamant that the added time will have an impact.
Officials at CREC say all the proof the state should need is the performance of the students at their schools with added time.
“Going to school for this long will not hurt, it will only help,” said Jake Mendelssohn, a chemical engineer teacher at the Math and Science Academy. “It allows us more time to do the interventions we need to do when a student doesn’t pick up a lesson right away. We aren’t having to rush through the lesson, so we can cover everything in time.”