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D.C. Moves To Extend School Day At Low-Performing Schools

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Under D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's proposal, 40 low-performing schools could remain open an extra hour.
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Under D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's proposal, 40 low-performing schools could remain open an extra hour.

The afternoon school bell may ring a little later for some D.C. public school students starting in the next academic year.

As part of the city's 2015 budget, Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson want to dramatically expand a pilot program that allows low-performing schools to extend their school days.

Most D.C. public schools operate on a seven-and-a-half-hour-long school day, but now Gray and Henderson want to allow up to 40 low-performing public schools — 21 elementary schools and every middle school — to remain open for up to an additional hour every day.

Gray made the announcement in his State of the District speech, where he announced that he would propose $116 million in additional spending for schools. He said that the initiative would help close a stubborn achievement gap that exists in the city's public schools.

In an interview, Henderson said that higher-than-average gains on math and reading tests at seven schools that were part of a pilot program in the 2012-13 school year prove that the idea is worth expanding.

“With our lowest-performing schools, our 40 lowest-performing schools, that is a place where more time is crucial. We were able to see that in seven of the eight schools where we extended the school day, they saw huge gains on the D.C. CAS. But more than just test score gains, teachers, students, families say they need more time with each other," she said.

Under her plan, schools could add an hour to the day, ending at 4:15 p.m. instead of 3:15.

Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center for Time and Learning, says that D.C. will join a growing national trend supporting longer school days, one fueled by concerns over unequal achievement levels and an increased focus on new curricula.

“The first is the concern about the unrelenting achievement gap and the implementation of the Common Core higher standards, that is not only requiring more time for students to learn more challenging content, but for teachers to have collaboration, professional development time in order to build new skills around more challenging Common Core standards," she says.

Longer school days have gotten attention among many school reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who in 2010 called for public school students to stay in school for up to 12 hours a day. Many charter schools in D.C. already operate under extended school days.

Davis counts herself among strong supporters of the idea. Still, she warns, simply adding time won’t make schools better.

“Of course, how you use that extra time is critical and that's one of the real challenges that the District of Columbia, I think, faces, that they need to implement expanded time well, to make sure that students are really getting the kind of support that propels them academically," she says.

The initiative won't be automatic — teachers at eligible schools would have to vote on whether to expand the school day. School officials estimate that the program could cost $7 million a year, depending on how many schools participate.

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