Longer School Days That Work

From Chicago to Houston to Washington, D.C., districts around the country are beginning to experiment with longer school days as a way to raise academic achievement. A pioneer in this effort is Massachusetts, which launched a statewide extended school day program in 2005.

Ferryway School is one of Massachusetts’s success stories.

While kids from neighboring schools are still finishing up their bowls of cereal or running out the door to meet the bus, students at Ferryway in Malden, a working class city just north of Boston, are already at their desks, ready for a new day of learning.

Ferryway is a K-8 school in its fourth year of Expanded Learning Time (ELT), a grant program overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Education that extends the school day by at least 300 hours.  While other district schools are in session from 8:15 to 2:15, Ferrway’s day starts at 7:45 and ends at 3:30.

“Kids used to be rushed,” says eighth grade Language Arts teacher Elaine Ivy, who now has a 90 minute block every day. “Forty minutes for a class is too short, and it winds up being just 30 minutes after you get them settled into their desks for the lesson. Now we’ve slowed the process down, and class is more like a relaxed country drive where they can absorb what they’re learning versus being stuck in rush hour traffic where they’re in a hurry but not getting anywhere.”

Ferryway is one of 19 Massachusetts public schools participating in ELT to improve academic performance and reintroduce students to enrichment programs that have too often been stripped from the school day.

ELT is designed by staff and administrators, supported by the union (not only because teachers help design the extended day, but are paid for the extra time), and funded by the state, who administers grants to participating schools.

To receive a grant, the school must institute a longer day that includes a combination of core academic instruction, with longer periods devoted to subjects like math, science and language arts, enrichment opportunities, and time for teacher collaboration and planning.

At Ferryway, the administration and staff created a block schedule so that students would have 90 minutes a day for core subjects. Art, music, and computers are part of Ferrway’s “exploratory” class offerings, and every student has a different, one-hour exploratory each day. While they are in exploratory, teachers meet for planning.

“One of the best things about ELT is the built-in planning time,” says Margaret Briatico, who is the team leader of the school’s fifth grade teachers. “Each grade has a team of teachers who meet for an hour every day to discuss test data, necessary interventions for students, and curriculum issues. We’re no longer working in isolation. We now have professional learning communities.”

The ELT grant requires schools to forge partnerships, and Ferryway students are offered a digital media class provided by the Adobe Youth Voices program. The elective meets every day during the school’s reading workshop block, and kids work on projects that range from the personal, like a digital self-portrait collage, to the global, like a stop motion animated film on industrialization.

“In this class, kids who normally wouldn’t speak up can find their voice and express themselves,” says art teacher Breanne Mahoney.

Finding a voice to express oneself is especially important for the school’s many ELL students. Malden is a melting pot of immigrants where more than 50 languages are spoken. Cultures range from Irish, Haitian, Greek, and Italian to Dominican, Somalian, Brazilian, and Chinese. Ferryway also has a significant low-income population, with more than 70 percent of students on the free or reduced lunch program.

“A Real Sense of Purpose”

Ferryway opened its doors in 1999 with two principals – one for K-4, the other for 5-8. Two years later, both principals were gone and Thomas DeVito was promoted from vice principal to principal of the entire school. It wasn’t an easy transition. Ferryway was one the state’s lowest performing schools.

“Things were mess,” he said. “We had high numbers of special education students, low test scores, and low morale.”

DeVito’s goal was to get the staff to think of Ferryway not as two separate schools, but as one K-8 school where everyone was responsible for its successes and failures. He then got a Reading First Grant and changed the way literacy was taught in K-5 grades, and refocused the school on language arts and math to bring up test scores.

“As a result, there’s been a real sense of purpose here. Everyone has rolled up their sleeves, and we’re turning the whole school around,” DeVito says. “ELT accelerated the process, but it’s not a silver bullet. It gave us the flexibility with more time in the day, but you still need staff dedication, time spent poring over data, attention to practice, and giving students the interventions they need to really succeed.”

Succeed they have. The proof is in the numbers. In 2006, 49 percent of students were proficient in English Language Arts. In 2001, the number rose to 63 percent. In 2006, 30 percent of students were proficient in math, by 2011, 63 percent were. In 2006, 15 percent of students were considered failing in English Language Arts and 35 percents of students failed in math – by 2011 those numbers had shrunk significantly to only 9 percent failure in English Language Arts and 14 percent failure in math.

The school also exceeded the district averages in English Language Arts, math and science.

This fall, Ferryway was one of 127 schools commended statewide for narrowing student performance gaps and demonstrating strong gains on state assessments, and is now considered one of the top schools in the district.

“The fruits have really started to show,” says DeVito. “Just getting on that list is incredible. It shows everyone how far we’ve come.”