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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Longer school days - your kids may not like them, but more and more policymakers do. From New York and Arizona, there's a push to lengthen the public school day, but the costs can be prohibitively expensive. One school in Connecticut is experimenting with ways to make a longer school day interesting and affordable.

From member station WSHU, Charles Lane explains.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible). I see projects, so you're going to be careful.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: It's early, 7:30 in the morning, the sun is still rising. And already, the kids here at Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, Connecticut, are dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DYNAMITE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) I want to celebrate and live my life, saying ay-oh, baby, let's go. Because we going to rock this club, we going to go all night.

LANE: There's stomping and hopping and a general getting the shakies out, as fifth-grader Jaelinne Davis says.

JAELINNE DAVIS: If we're like hyper, if we do this, then we can get better at, like, staying mellow and stuff like that.

LANE: By 9 a.m., Jaelinne will be back in her normal school day with its core curriculum that's graded by a state test at the end of the year. But until then, she'll have 80 minutes of exercising and breakfast and so-called enrichment classes. These are things like math, computer games, robotics, game making and hands-on science lessons, all stuff that's fun but has learning snuck into it. Dan Coffey, the principal here, says it's about making longer school days less grueling.

DAN COFFEY: We want it to be fun and engaging, especially in this morning hour. You know, if I had to send my children to school to do more test prep or more penmanship or more just plain old reading and writing, I'm not so interested.

LANE: That plain old reading and writing is what educators call academic time. Advocates for longer school days say kids do best when you increase a blend of enrichment classes with straight academic time and also extra collaboration time for teachers.

Chris Gabrieli is the co-founder of The National Center on Time & Learning, a nonprofit campaigning to make school longer. He says academic time is important, but enrichment time provides a well-rounded education, especially for families that can't afford, say, piano lessons or cub scouts.

CHRIS GABRIELI: And it gives, frankly, high-poverty kids what most middle class and upper middle-class families now want and buy on the outside for their kids.

LANE: Of course, making school days longer costs money, mostly in teacher salaries. Gabireli says it costs about 1,000 to $1,500 per student per year, making school bills five to 10 percent more expensive than what they are now.

(LAUGHTER)

COFFEY: We got some very creative kids. Who said race for the end of the year?

LANE: But back at Pulaski, Principal Dan Coffey says his extended school program is a lot cheaper. The school system says it will cost between 80 and $115 per kid per year, something that most taxpayers would barely even notice. He does this a couple of ways. By focusing on enrichment time, he needs fewer unionized teachers and can get away with instructors from a local community group. For the teachers that would work the longer school hours, Coffey plans to stagger their schedules and use those large dance and computer classes to dilute the teacher-pupil ratio.

COFFEY: I'd have 21 in the morning and 21 at the end of the day. But during the bulk of the day, I'd have 42 teachers here from, let's say, 9 o'clock to 2 o'clock.

LANE: Coffey says this will make the 80 minutes in the morning cost effective and sustainable. But there's no way to really tell if enrichment time alone will yield any results.

BENJAMIN HANSEN: There's really concrete evidence that more academic time leads to improved performance. There's nothing that suggests increased enrichment time will.

LANE: Benjamin Hansen is a professor of economics at the University of Oregon. He and others who studied the issues say there's some suggestion that enrichment time and after-school programs can lead to higher attendance and graduation rates, but the evidence is far from overwhelming.

In fact, Hansen says, the experiments being done at Pulaski and elsewhere might be the first chance to really study the impact of extending the less expensive enrichment time. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.

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