March 22, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 32
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Extended school days get high marks, even from kids

David Pomerantz

It is 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, and seventh-graders Mercis and Leroy are helping each other with their math homework.

Most students in Boston’s middle schools would be home by that time. But Mercis and Leroy attend the Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, one of ten Massachusetts schools that this year received a total of $6.5 million, or $1,300 per student, to lengthen their school day under the state’s Expanding Learning Time to Support Student Success Initiative (ELT).

The Boston school district claims three of those schools: Edwards, James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury and Mario Umana/Joseph H. Barnes Middle School in East Boston. While other Boston schools let out at 1:40 p.m., these three schools keep students in class until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, greatly increasing the amount of time students spend in the classroom.

Administrators at all three schools claim that so far, the program is an unequivocal success.

“To me, it’s been a very, very successful first year,” Edwards Principal Michael Sabin said.

The schools are using their extra time in different ways, but all have elected to use at least some of the time for “enrichment” programs — classes in the arts, music or athletics that the schools would not have had the time or money to offer previously.

Mercis, for instance, takes cooking class twice a week at Edwards. Leroy takes a class called “sports and scholarship,” where students compete in activities that mix athletic events with academic questions. Edwards also offers classes like cheerleading, band and art, while students at Timilty can choose from chess club, robotics or rowing.

“I like that it’s free,” Mercis said of the enrichment programs at Edwards. “You don’t have to pay for it. If I wanted to take karate or ballet [outside of school], it costs a lot.”

Underprivileged students at Boston’s public schools might not be able to afford other after-school activities, a problem that Umana/Barnes administrator Corbett Coutts referred to as the “access gap.”

“Families with resources were disproportionately benefiting from services outside of traditional school hours,” Coutts said. “We have the opportunity to make sure all students have the chance to benefit. By closing the access gap, we’re attempting to close the achievement gap.”

The schools are attempting to close the achievement gap in other ways as well. At Edwards, all students participate in the “math league,” an extra hour of math work in a team every day, culminating in math competitions every Thursday.

Both Timilty and Edwards are trying to get extra academic help to students who are underperforming on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the mandatory state tests which determine a student’s proficiency and a school’s designation in the categories created by the five-year-old national No Child Left Behind Act.

At Edwards, Mercis and Leroy take a class called “ELA All-Stars,” which gives special help for the English and language arts MCAS test. Struggling students at Timilty must use one of their new electives for the “homework club,” where they work in groups to do their homework with a teacher present to help them with questions.

The specter of standardized testing looms over ELT in a number of ways.

Sabin said that classes like ELA All-Stars aren’t just test prep, but he also acknowledged that the ELT program will be judged by whether or not it helps to improve test scores.

“It better bring results, because we’re in the ‘restructuring’ category of No Child Left Behind, and we need to improve,” Sabin said. “The state will judge this program by the MCAS scores. And we think the scores will increase.”

Even seventh-graders like Mercis perceive how ELT could be an added boost when it comes to the high-stakes tests.

“I like [the extra time] because it’s extra help to help us pass the MCAS,” Mercis said.

Aside from academic benefits, administrators recognize that ELT has the added benefit of keeping students off the streets after school, when juvenile crime rates spike.

“My perspective is it’s both,” Timilty Principal Valeria Lowe-Barehmi said. “If a student is behind, he needs more time. At the same time, it’s a positive avenue for a student who might leave here and go home to stand on the corner or watch TV all day.”

“Research has shown that the highest crime hours are from three to five,” added Renee Lewis, another Timilty administrator. “During those hours, they’re here.”

After-school safety is such a concern for Timilty that Lowe-Barehmi is considering switching the end of the school day from 4:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. next year to avoid students’ having to walk home in the dark.

“I live kind of far from school, and it gets kind of dark and scary walking home from the bus stop,” one Timilty seventh-grader from South Boston said. Another student, who lives on Blue Hill Avenue near Julian Street, agreed.

Aside from that possible small change at Timilty, administrators at the schools say they have had few problems with the new schedule. Teachers have the option to leave at 1:40 p.m., but over three-quarters of the faculty at all three schools have elected to stay for the extra hours.

“They enjoy the extra money and having a different kind of interaction with the kids,” Sabin joked.

As for the students themselves, they may have griped in the beginning of the year, but most have settled into the longer day.

“They’ve grown to like it because they see their improvement in reading and writing,” said Hassan Mansaray, Mercis and Leroy’s English teacher.

For Timilty, the funding couldn’t have come at a better time. While Edwards and Umana/Barnes are new to ELT, Timilty has employed longer hours since 1986, when it began extending its school day to 3:45 p.m.

The program turned the school around overnight, according to Timilty’s current assistant principal James Anderson, who started as a math and science teacher at the school 21 years ago.

But city funding had run dry recently, and over the last three years, Timilty had to claw to raise over $1 million in private and state matching funds in order to keep the program alive. With the new state funding, the school’s principal is breathing easier.

“It is really good to have the funding,” Lowe-Barehmi said. “We can really get back to instruction now.”

For the time being, at least, it seems as if the money will be there. Gov. Deval Patrick doubled funding for ELT in his proposed budget for 2008 to $13 million, and more than 80 Massachusetts schools have been awarded state grants to implement an expanded schedule by that year, according to Massachusetts 2020, a group that has lobbied for ELT.

“The extra time makes the difference, and without the money, there is no extra time,” Lowe-Barehmi said.

Even with ELT, a school like Timilty still has its problems. The Roxbury school’s student body is over 98 percent black and Latino. It has one guidance counselor for 670 students, all of whom are crammed into a building designed for 450, and the teacher-student ratio is now 28-to-1. But administrators there claim that the benefits of ELT can do a lot to outweigh all that.

“My thinking is, the more you do something, the better you get at it,” said Anderson. “If you play the trumpet more, you’ll get better at it. It’s just like that with school.”

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