News & Opinion » News

RCSD's big gamble: longer days


Twenty or 30 years ago, staying after school for anything other than football practice usually meant bad news. And the mere mention of summer school could send chills up your spine. But longer school days and shorter summer vacations, especially in urban districts, are quickly becoming standard ingredients of elementary and secondary public education.

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas launched his plan for longer school days in three city schools last year — All City High, Northeast College Preparatory High School, and School 9. And the district has confirmed that Schools 10, 23, 45, and tentatively, 46, are among a total of 10 schools Vargas plans to operate with longer days beginning this fall.

For a district that critics often complain has ossified, shifting to what educators refer to as extended or expanded learning is nothing short of tectonic. The undertaking has required origami-like planning to reshape and invigorate the school day for students. Nearly every aspect of the Rochester school system will feel the impact: schedules for students, parents, and teachers; transportation; and facilities modernization and maintenance.

The effort is being supported by a dizzying patchwork of foundations, businesses, and community organizations. For example, a grant proposal submitted by the Rochester Area Community Foundation and the Rochester school district resulted in $500,000 in initial planning and implementation grants from the Ford Foundation. The foundation also awarded the district a multimillion-dollar grant to further support expanded learning.

And many of the area's government and nonprofit agencies are working with the district to offer services like health care and afterschool programs.

But there are still many unanswered questions about the expanded learning strategy: Will it work? What lessons did school officials learn from the pilot programs at All City High, Northeast College Prep, and School 9? And if expanded learning does work, how will the district sustain it?

Though Vargas may be remembered as the person who brought longer days to Rochester's schools, in some respects, the decision wasn't entirely his. The expedition into expanded learning can be traced to former President Bush's signature education legislation, No Child Left Behind, and the 2009 passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The ARRA included $3 billion to shore up NCLB's School Improvement Grant program.

The SIG program, which is managed by state education departments, requires the nation's lowest achieving public schools to fundamentally reform using one of four models: closing persistently low-performing schools; converting or restarting the schools as charter schools; developing a plan to turn around a school [which could include firing half of the teachers]; or working to completely transform the school using a different educational model, such as longer school days.

Former Rochester schools Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, Vargas's predecessor, favored closing some schools as he opened new schools. But Vargas opened All City High largely because many students in the schools that were being phased out were falling further behind, he says.

Vargas has said he would not subject the district to the disruptions involved with the phase in-phase out model. He has instead chosen the transformational model, which relies heavily on strategies like longer school days. It's also a model that New York State Education Commissioner John King supports for what the SED calls "priority schools," those that are persistently failing.

Since the majority of Rochester city schools are priority schools, the shift to longer schools days isn't an entirely unexpected progression. But Rochester's schools are something of an exception: the social and economic needs of most of Rochester's children and families are greater than almost anywhere else in the state.

"We went from 34 percent childhood poverty in the last decade to 54 percent, from 11th in the nation to seventh," says Caterina Leone-Mannino, the district's director of extended learning. "The needs are getting worse and more intense."

The urgency has been evident for a while, she says, but the district has struggled with what to do about it.

"The problem is so huge," Leone-Mannino says. "This is what Superintendent Vargas means when he says, 'We can't do this alone.' I think he's repeated it so many times that the community really believes him."

Building an additional 200 to 300 hours into the school year and corralling help from the community is at the core of extended learning. How those hours are spent and tailored to the specific needs of students is the challenge. If implemented correctly, increased student achievement is not only possible, Leone-Mannino says, it can be expected.

"It's logical that you would have an increased rate of learning because you're spending more time that is focused on what those students need to accomplish," she says. "It's not time for time's sake; it's adding time to drive the instructional agenda."

Leone-Mannino says it's also important to conceptualize extended learning in the context of the state's reform agenda. The district's introduction of New York's more rigorous curriculum, teacher evaluations, and the use of data from testing and assessments to drive instruction should have synergy, she says.

"In those three big spheres, extended learning hits at the heart of the problem to make reform possible," she says.

While it's tempting to conclude that a longer school day will automatically mean more time for instruction in core subjects, the concept is much more nuanced and complex. For example, while many of the district's schools are high need, priority schools, the next group of schools targeted for longer days represent a cross-section of city schools, and they are at different levels of performance.

Each school has developed an individualized plan to address the needs of its students. That could mean longer instruction time in math and English in some cases, but it could also mean more time for afterschool and extracurricular activities.

The distinction is that even the afterschool and summer programs need to address the areas where students need help, Leone-Mannino says. She calls this "full integration," and cites an afterschool program run by the YMCA at School 8.

"Typical of what happened traditionally was, we got the YMCA application for the program," Leone-Mannino says. "We passed it out to every kid in the school for maybe 80 slots. Those 80 kids got selected and stayed after school. Very little information was exchanged between the school and the YMCA staff. Yes, there's a caring staff, it's safe, and there's some integration of curriculum. But that's not strategic and intentional."

In a fully integrated program, school officials identify the 80 children who would most benefit from extra attention in science and reading, for example, says Leone-Mannino. Then school officials match the children with the agency that can offer that level of support.

Some of the lessons learned in the first year with the pilot schools have been difficult, though not insurmountable, Leone-Mannino says. Northeast College Prep was initially open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the hours were shortened to 7:10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Some parents were concerned about such a long school day, and some students were not participating in the program, often because of transportation problems.

Another problem that drew community attention was Wegmans' difficulty finding volunteers to support teachers at Northeast College Prep. Critics said that there were too few volunteers to offer meaningful help, and the screening process took too long.

Ty Kelly, Wegmans' director of youth development, has been recruiting and coordinating volunteers for Northeast College Prep. He has 35 volunteers who provide more than 100 hours a week of support to the school's teachers. For example, a teacher working on a math lesson might break the class into groups. And the volunteer might work with some students who need to review a prior lesson, while the teacher works with students who are ready to advance to the next lesson.

But Kelly says there are limits to what volunteers can do.

"The perception was that volunteers could take some of the pressure off of teachers, but for safety reasons volunteers can't be left alone with students," Kelly says.

There were close to 60 volunteers at one point, Kelly says, but many were between jobs. As the economy improved, many volunteers found employment, and that reduced their availability. But Kelly says the larger problem has been matching volunteers' availability with the schedules and needs of teachers.

"It takes an enormous amount of juggling and attention to detail," he says.

Leone-Mannino says the pilots, particularly Northeast College Prep, rushed to open last year.

"Real important lesson from the first year — if you're going to bring volunteers into the school, you better have a really crisp plan for how they're going to integrate into the day," she says.

Kelly says that a critique of any program is necessary to improve. But he says Northeast principal Mary Aronson, the volunteers, and Wegmans should be commended.

"Dr. Aronson deserves credit for jumping into this and taking the risk at doing something that had not been done before," Kelly says. "The community is so desperate for the district to succeed that when something new is suggested, everybody expects a quick fix. There are no quick fixes. This is going to take a lot of work."

E'Tiana Larkin is one Northeast's volunteers and a full time, entry-level manager at Wegmans. She has been volunteering since the program began, and says she can pitch in on almost anything that's needed.

Kelly says it helps students to see volunteers like Larkin — people of color — working in the classroom.

"I've learned the personalities of the different students and they've shared some of their life experiences, and I've shared some of mine," Larkin says. She says she wants them to know that finishing high school is not the end goal.

"They'll say things like, 'You have a job and you're in college and you're getting a master's degree,' with a sense of amazement," Larkin says. "And they know I'm a single mother doing this. A lot of young people are faced with similar challenges, but I did not give up on my dreams and ambitions, and they don't have to, either. I want them to know that there are so many different pathways to success."

Both Kelly and Larkin say that even though they are not teachers, their work with the district has convinced them that the RCSD is on the right track with extended learning. And they are not alone. The model has been embraced at the highest levels of government and the business community.

But whether extended learning works depends on some key elements. Merely adding another hour or two to the school day accomplishes little, experts say. A fully integrated program, as Leone-Mannino has promised for Rochester's schools, is critical.

But hard data on student performance in the city's pilot program isn't available yet, according to the district.

"It's too early for us to say that this has had a strong academic impact in year one," Leone-Mannino says. "What we're anticipating is that kids in the expanded learning schools will have an accelerated rate of growth."

Rochester school officials cite a report from the After-School Corporation on extended learning programs in New York City, New Orleans, and Baltimore schools. Those schools reported increased proficiency in math, improved student attendance, and a decrease in chronic absenteeism. A survey of parents, students, and teachers also showed that schools with extended learning ranked higher than the non-program schools in safety and student engagement.

Leone-Mannino says that some of the "soft" indicators at School 9 are similar to those reported in the study: increased attendance and a decrease in student behavior problems.

She says harder data should be available later this year.

But sustaining the extended learning programs is a major concern. A recent article in the Washington Post cited a study by the Government Accountability Office. Their researchers found that in 26 states that have implemented extended hours programs, only 10 report they will continue with the programs. The main reason for abandoning the programs: insufficient funding.

If you examine the city school district's proposed budget for 2013 to 2014, figuring out how the district is paying for extended hours is a challenge. The numbers don't jump off the page. That's partly because the funding and services come from a labyrinth of government, private, and nonprofit agencies.

For example, five schools offering longer days in the fall are with the TIME Collaborative, which is part of a pilot program funded by the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning. Those schools will receive a total of $3.64 million a year for three years.

School 9's program is covered by an $894,000 grant from the School Innovation Fund. Another four schools will get roughly $2.8 million from the district's general fund. And some schools are still waiting for their plans and funding to be approved by the state, so they aren't reflected in the district's budget.

The funding questions raise concerns about effectively coordinating and managing the programs, auditing how productively the money is invested, and analyzing students' academic data.

Leone-Mannino says she's heard the objections and concerns about sustainability, but she's undeterred.

"A big part of this is working with local organizations," she says. "There are local investments that can be organized around this vision. This is not about doing something just at the school level. It's the school, district, and community. It's got to be a program in that larger context if we're going to be successful."