It is one of our School Committee’s Long Range goals to consider extending the school day. There is a big push for this gathering on the state level as well, and schools are beginning to take advantage of grant money offered to give $1,300 per student for 300 hours of additional instruction/enrichment hours. I found out a little about this at a meeting held by the Somerville Teachers Association at the Healey School last week. There was a facilitator from Mass2020 named Trina Abbott, and a PD specialist from the MTA named Ralph Devlin there to explain some of the finer points of the plan.
I had heard a good bit of grumbling from teachers about elongating the school day. It was their perception that the Superintendent was asking them to do this, and to give up their Wednesday half days for common planning time, with no pay increase whatsoever. I know teachers who work a second job in the evening to make ends meet, and so this did sound alarming. I decided to try to catch more of the buzz about this “extended learning time” option.
As a para working at the Brown School as a Resource Room Aide, and as a parent of a 6th grader and a 9th grader in Somerville, I feel I have a fairly unique vantage point on school issues. I know that extended day is something that parents are very interested in pursuing for our kids. So I went to the Healey to learn more (only realizing later that it was really the teachers from the four schools that are considering going for this grant—Healey, Kennedy, West Somerville, and Winter Hill–that were officially invited). The district, apparently, has received a planning grant to begin consideration of submitting a proposal for this competitive state grant.
At first blush, I have to say this ELT grant seems like a great opportunity. It meets the needs of teachers in some important ways: a) It gets them more money; b) It is almost infinitely flexible in how it could be structured so that some teachers could “opt out” of the extended day, and there could be a way of preserving the time afforded by half-day Wednesdays for common planning and/or professional development; c) It gives teachers the extra time in the day to do the things for students that they are always saying there is just not enough time for, and d) This extra time does not have to be filled entirely by teachers because outside vendors or volunteers could be used to for enrichment activities, or whatever seems useful.
This is a grossly oversimplified assessment, but I hope that parents, teachers and administrators will get together to consider this opportunity. I know that very few parents showed up at the Kennedy School to discuss the issue the other night. It will take all community members to develop a plan and agree to it for the grant proposal to even be considered. So it’s a tough row to hoe, but a potentially very fruitful one. For the ELT grant, the facilitator seems like a really helpful person who can tell us how it’s being done at the 18 schools in Massachusetts who have already begun this program. We should hear what she has to say. She is not paid by us or the state, so she has no vested interest in talking us (Somerville school communities) into anything.
At the same time, the School Committee has just heard a presentation by a group of artist parents who have formulated an Arts Integration Initiative to get artist parents in schools to bring more dance, music, drama and visual arts to students to improve their learning and decrease the drop-out rate. While there are no magic bullets for those things, this group made a good case for their ideas. I recently learned that the East Somerville School had in years past an Artist in Residence program that might have had some similarities with what this group is proposing, so it isn’t out in left field for Somerville to consider this. This group would also be going for a big grant to fund the whole thing. Just think! If we got a grant to fund the arts initiative, and a grant to fund an extended day program, we’d be rolling in dough, and our kids would be better educated and more happy to go to school every day! If we feathered the day with Art Initiatives, it would give teachers more planning time (like they get when their class goes to other specialists), and achieve the extension of the school day.
Another problem that teachers have is that they cannot send projects home with kids, because many parents do not have the time to spend on school projects with their kids that others do. It’s not fair for kids whose parents can put in the time (and sometimes money) to compete with those whose parents cannot. One science teacher I know has stopped doing a science fair project and has found something that could be done in school for this reason. Could the Arts Initiative Program be tied to supporting the curriculum for such projects? I’m just asking!
I know there are lots of hurdles to cross in implementing anything like these plans, but they seem tantalizingly worthy of a really close look. Two kids that I work with recently wrote essays on their ideal school. One wrote that she wanted the school to be bursting with song and dance; the other wrote that he wanted a room with piles of supplies to make stuff with. If kids, parents, teachers and administrators all get more of what they want, maybe the hard work of extending the school day will be worth it. We won’t know unless we really give it a hard look by going to the meetings and checking it out for ourselves. Mary Jo Rosetti has set up a community meeting at the West Somerville Community School May 15. I understand that that school may be the strongest candidate for going forward with a grant proposal, and I think I hope they do.