Massachusetts Schools Try Out Longer Days

Massachusetts is the first state giving out grants to school districts to pursue a longer school day — and 20 districts have applied for the money. Murphy Middle School in Boston is already experimenting with a longer day, offering help with homework and extra curriculum until late in the evening.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Just about everybody agrees that when it comes to education, the more learning, the better. That's why some schools across the country are experimenting with longer school days and weekend classes. So far these initiatives have been limited to individual schools and school districts. Now Massachusetts has become the first state to launch a systemwide effort to extend the traditional six-hour school day. NPR's Anthony Brooks reports.

ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:

It's just after 2:30 in the afternoon, and across the city of Boston, most kids are on their way home from school. But inside the Murphy Middle School, a public school in the Dorchester neighborhood, a full afternoon of work is just getting started.

(Soundbite of voices in classroom)

Unidentified Teacher #1: Boys and girls, we're back to silent homework time for five more minutes, and then I have your snack.

BROOKS: Three hundred kids, about a third of this school's population, take part in this extended-day program that runs until 6 PM. They can get help with their homework or take extra reading and math classes.

Unidentified Teacher #1: What happens--actually, Lam(ph), can you go and add the 0 and bring down another 0 on that?

BROOKS: They can study piano and violin, or join a hip-hop dance class.

(Soundbite of background music)

Unidentified Teacher #2: Ready? Let's start with looking right and left. Right, and left, and left...

BROOKS: They can do sports, take art classes or study French, as well as Japanese.

Unidentified Teacher #3: OK. So we're going to start with (Japanese spoken). Let's go again. (Japanese spoken).

Group of Students: (Japanese spoken).

Unidentified Teacher #3: (Japanese spoken).

Group of Students: (Japanese spoken).

Unidentified Teacher #3: (Japanese spoken).

Group of Students: (Japanese spoken).

Unidentified Teacher #3: (Japanese spoken).

Group of Students: (Japanese spoken).

Unidentified Teacher #3: (Japanese spoken).

Group of Students: (Japanese spoken).

BROOKS: Many of the students at the Murphy School come from low-income families, but they earn some of the highest reading and math scores in the city. Principal Mary Russo says this program is an important reason why.

Ms. MARY RUSSO (Principal, Murphy Middle School): Well, what's different now is that students are required to learn to standards all over the country, and in order to reach those standards, which are tougher now and more rigorous, students need more time to learn.

BROOKS: Holly Concannon(ph) agrees. She's a fourth-grade teacher here who says the traditional six-hour school day is just too short to meet the new, tougher standards.

Ms. HOLLY CONCANNON (Fourth-Grade Teacher): It's very challenging to fit it all in, and things like recess are sacrificed. You know, there's the guilt of not allowing the children to have recess, and then there's the guilt of `If I take them to recess, what am I missing?'

BROOKS: This program is voluntary, but it offers a glimpse of what public education could look like in the years ahead. Many charter schools across the country, with freedom to experiment, use longer days, particularly in urban districts which otherwise have few after-school academic programs for their kids, who often need them the most.

Mr. CHRIS GABRIELI (Massachusetts 2020 Foundation): The real question is, what is the amount of time that kids need to succeed?

BROOKS: That's Chris Gabrieli, who heads the Massachusetts 2020 Foundation, a non-profit group pushing for a longer school day.

Mr. GABRIELI: The notion that every kid can succeed in exactly the same amount of time, 180 days, six hours a day, is sort of nonsensical on its face. So why not expand school to be significantly more time, contain considerably more of the things that kids need to succeed, meaning enrichment, arts, music, drama, sports, depending on their needs?

BROOKS: Gabrieli has pushed the idea in the Massachusetts Legislature, which approved about a half million dollars worth of planning grants to help districts design school days that would be a full 30 percent longer. Twenty districts, including Boston, have applied for the money. So has the small city of Lowell, Massachusetts, where school superintendent Karla Baehr says a longer day and a longer school year would help the city's large immigrant population.

Ms. KARLA BAEHR (Lowell School Superintendent): Our youngsters would greatly benefit from the opportunity to be in settings where they're constantly encouraged to speak, to listen, to read and to really develop their language skills.

BROOKS: But Baehr says the trick will be to design a longer school day that works, and then sell the concept to politicians, teachers and parents.

Ms. BAEHR: This is not simple, because when you shift from voluntary to mandatory, when you really think about it as integrated and coordinated with the regular school program, it's very challenging.

BROOKS: Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teacher Association, is open to some of the benefits of a longer school day, but she says it shouldn't be required.

Ms. CATHERINE BOUDREAU (President, Massachusetts Teacher Association): I'm not even sure that teachers believe mandatory extended day is good for students. There are parents that would like their children to come home, play outside and not be at school from 7:00 in the morning to 6:00 at night. They would like their children to have some childhood.

(Soundbite of classroom noise)

Unidentified Teacher #4: Now my answer--OK? No more remainders. We don't want to use it, OK?--in sixth grade. Twenty-five...

BROOKS: At the Murphy School, some teachers voice similar concerns. But Principal Mary Russo says she favors a fundamental restructuring of the school day, not just extending more of the same.

Ms. RUSSO: Sometimes when it's presented to people in terms of time, they think, `Oh, well, more time doesn't necessarily equal higher achievement.' But if you think about balancing recreation, academics, arts, I think you're talking about a much stronger educational experience.

Unidentified Teacher #4: Right now...

BROOKS: Paul Reville, who heads the Rennie Center for Education in Cambridge, agrees. He points out kids from Europe to Asia spend a lot more time in classrooms than do American kids, who are stuck with an outdated academic calendar.

Mr. PAUL REVILLE (Rennie Center for Education): We're essentially in a post-industrial information age, with an agrarian model of education time. We sent them home in the afternoon to do chores on the farm. We sent them home all summer to bring in the harvest. And we're still doing that, even though 1 or 2 percent of our population is engaged in agriculture.

BROOKS: But the biggest challenge may be cost. While the state has committed just a half million dollars in planning grants, it will require much more to implement longer school days statewide, and it's not yet clear if the public is committed to such a large investment. Anthony Brooks, NPR News, Boston.

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