Teacher Chad Rucker listens to ninth-grader Brittany Stone during a cultural literacy class at City High Charter School in the Clark Building, Downtown
By Karamagi Rujumba Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As yet another school year unfolds, some students may bemoan the end of a long summer break.
But students at City High Charter School, Downtown, have had to adjust to a shorter break -- just one month -- because the school operates on a year-round calendar.
"I wasn't used to being in school that long, but I got used to it," said Angelo Carr, a junior.
Rick Wertheimer, principal and co-founder of the school that opened in 2002, said, "We just don't think it's healthy for a student to spend 11 weeks out of their academic routine. That's when they develop bad habits again."
City High is part of a movement to lengthen the time students spend in school and use it strategically.
Its calendar includes 186 days of instruction -- longer than many other public schools-- and about a month off three times a year.
The push for more time in school has won supporters as prominent as President Barack Obama, who last year said the typical American school day puts the nation at a competitive disadvantage over countries where students spend more time in school.
BACK TO SCHOOL MAKING TIME
A four-day series that looks at how schools and students use the school day.
"We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day," Mr. Obama said.
The comparison has been a repeated refrain since 1983, when a U.S. Department of Education report, "A Nation at Risk," concluded that the lackluster amount of time -- and poor use of it -- in American schools is one of a number of factors that contribute to "a rising tide of mediocrity" in the U.S. education system.
The report found that American students spend about six hours a day for 180 days a year in school compared to their peers in some other countries who spend at least eight hours a day for 220 days a year in class.
In Pennsylvania, the norm is around 180 days.
Adding time has been a tough sell, given the economics of paying teachers more to teach a longer day and the practical realities of winning support for shorter summers or less time for after-school activities and jobs.
But despite the hurdles, some local schools still have added instructional time beyond the traditional amount, including charter schools throughout the county as well as select schools operated by Pittsburgh Public Schools and Woodland Hills.
Some districts, such as Duquesne and South Allegheny, are adding from five to 15 minutes districtwide to their days this year.
Pennsylvania schools must meet state-required minimums: 450 instructional hours in kindergarten, 900 in elementary schools and 990 in secondary schools.
Nationwide, the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning, which is dedicated to expanding learning time, last year counted 655 schools in 36 states that provide extra time, on average 25 percent more than the national norm.
Adding time, in and of itself, is not enough.
"It absolutely matters what you do with extra time when you have it," said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning.
The challenge for school administrators, she said, is how to incorporate additional time into all aspects of their academic programs.
That is what the high-performing charter schools do particularly well, said Ms. Davis.
"They don't just add time. They focus on individual student support as they build dynamic class scheduling models. That allows for flexibility in instruction, one-on-one teacher interaction with students, and they train teachers on how best to utilize additional time.
"They make time for intervention with students who are falling behind, and, most of all, they make time to actually get through subject material," Ms. Davis said.
At City High, Dr. Wertheimer said, "Everything we do here is driven by the fact that we have an unconventional system and all of it is built around our time structure."
The school has six hours and 15 minutes of instruction a day -- more than some other high schools in Allegheny County -- not counting time spent on activities such as lunch and class changes.
Classes are scheduled in blocks of time to allow more in-depth work. The school practices "looping," keeping students with the same teachers all four years so there's no get-acquainted period at the beginning of each year.
"For us, we hit the ground running. Because of it, we almost gain a whole month of instruction time at the start of school," Dr. Wertheimer said.
Last year, City High was honored with a national award from the nonprofit New Leaders for New Schools.
On this spring's Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, 72 percent were proficient or advanced in reading and 51 percent in math. But it narrowly missed making the federal performance standard, adequate yearly progress, known as AYP.
Woodland Hills Academy, a K-8 school created by the Woodland Hills School District last year, also has a longer year built around three terms. Its calendar includes 195 school days, a week off in November, two weeks off in December and six weeks off in the summer.
The extra time helps the school to schedule an expanded period for reading in the morning and one for math in the afternoon as well as to offer additional classes -- such as Spanish, fly-fishing, sign language and computers. There also is time for teacher-student counseling and activities such as musicals.
Academy Principal Reginald Hickman said the additional time has helped to boost the school's first scores on state tests taken in the spring. On the PSSA, 69 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading and 86 percent in math.
What's more, Mr. Hickman said, test results also showed that the academy essentially erased the achievement gap between blacks and other students.
In fall 2006, Pittsburgh Public Schools opened eight accelerated learning academies, using additional time as a vehicle to raise academic achievement.
Academy students have six hours and 40 minutes of instructional time on a regular school day, longer than many other city schools. They also have 10 more days of instruction than other district schools.
Christiana Otuwa, the assistant superintendent who oversees the academies, said an extra 45 minutes was added into the schools' schedules specifically for intervention, enrichment and workshop periods.
Some suburban school districts also are adding time to their schedules.
The Duquesne City School District --which has only a K-8 school -- is adding 15 minutes to its day each year under a three-year contract. By 2011-12, teachers will be working an extra 45 minutes a day.
The time will be blended into the schedule depending on "where the principal thinks he needs extra time," said Sarah McCluan, spokeswoman of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which runs the Duquesne school.
In the South Allegheny School District, an instructional day was added to the school calendar and an extra five minutes of instructional time was added onto the daily schedule starting this fall. Another four minutes will be added next fall.
Once it assesses students, North Allegheny School District in October will add an hour in an extended-day pilot program for kindergarten students who need extra help with literacy skills. The program will start in two of the district's seven elementary schools -- Peebles and McKnight -- and may be expanded, depending on its success.
Aside from longer days, one way to add time is to reduce the length of summer vacation.
This idea is increasingly a focus for school reformers who contend that academically dormant students fall behind over the long summer break.
But a challenge to overcoming "summer loss" is creating academic summer programs that will entice children who would rather have the summer off.
Pittsburgh Public Schools used a mix of academics and activities -- ranging from boating to sculpture classes -- to attract about 1,200 students daily to voluntarily attend its first five-week summer camp called Summer Dreamers Academy.
Funded with $10 million of federal stimulus funds for two years, the camp will return next summer, but future funding is uncertain.
"Summer programming is the next frontier for us as an education system. We have to stop thinking of it as ancillary time," Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said.
While summer and after-school programs often are optional, Pittsburgh also is looking at extending the required school day and year at two more schools, Westinghouse, which will serve grades 6-12 next fall in two single-gender academies, and Oliver High School, which will partner with Community College of Allegheny County, also next fall.
But questions of expanding the school day and year ultimately have to be negotiated with the teacher union, said John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
What's more, Mr. Tarka said, the addition of time ought to come with realistic expectations.
"Lengthening the day without planning for it won't accomplish much," he said.