Opinion

Analysis: Why More Than 2,000 Schools Are Now Offering Longer Days — and Longer School Years

By William Whitaker | September 13, 2016

This month, many students are returning to school after extended summer vacations. Others will head back to class with just a few weeks’ reprieve from their lessons. Some will fall behind as they dust off their skills, while others will quickly acclimate to new teachers, new classmates and new material. Can you guess which students will adapt, and which ones will struggle?

We know that hitting pause on academics— even for just a few weeks — can cause serious learning loss. This reality hits youth living in low-income communities the hardest, contributing to the growing achievement gap. For instance, by fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave low-income students up to three years behind their peers. A child’s summer learning experiences can even affect whether they earn a high school diploma or continue on to college, according to research published by the Education Commission of the States.

An extended year alone isn’t enough to bridge the widening achievement gap; a longer school day with high-quality enrichment opportunities is also critical to keeping our students safe, engaged and on-track with their learning.

According to education experts such as the Afterschool Alliance, consistent supervision and engagement by adults during the summer and after school hours is more likely to prevent children and teens from abusing alcohol, drugs and tobacco, engaging in criminal behaviors, receiving poor grades and dropping out of school. However, for many low- to middle-income families, after-school activities, tutoring and summer learning programs are luxuries that are out of reach. After typical school hours, parents struggle with finding safe, affordable ways to keep their children engaged. In Washington, D.C., for example, a family with two school-age children can expect to pay an average of $2,597 per month for child care, according to calculations from the Economic Policy Institute. An extended-year, extended-day schedule not only better aligns with the schedules of working families, it also has the potential to reduce a family’s need for child care.

These are the challenges we sought to prevent when we founded the Washington Jesuit Academy (WJA) — a tuition-free, extended-day, extended-year, academically demanding middle school for boys — to improve the odds and outcomes for at-risk young men of all religions. Other schools in our region are beginning to experiment with extended school years and longer school days.

For instance, this academic year, 11 public schools in the District of Columbia have extended their schools’ hours of operation. Nationally, about 1,200 traditional public schools and 800 charter schools offered either a longer school day or year in 2013–14.

The families whose children attend WJA do not have the resources to participate in summer camps and after-school enrichment activities that keep students engaged and prevent learning loss among higher-income youth. That’s why WJA designed a new school calendar with these realities in mind. Since the school was founded 15 years ago, WJA has been pairing rigorous academics with character education, nutrition, counseling services, mentoring and a safe, disciplined school structure for 11 hours a day, 11 months out of the year.

The crux of our extended-year structure is, without a doubt, our six-week Summer Enrichment Program, which promotes school engagement and prevents summer learning loss among a population that has been devastatingly underserved. And, importantly, the program does not keep students indoors, entirely focused on academics. We begin the school day with two to three hours of language arts and math lessons, followed by enrichments ranging from art classes and field trips to volunteer work and athletics.

The advantages of our extended school day are far-reaching. Throughout the school year, our after-school activities provide critical structure and safety for our young men that address their needs. Our approach allows for a focus on health and wellness, as we offer three nutritious meals each day, free of cost. We can also provide an in-depth high school readiness curriculum in and out of the classroom that better prepares our eighth-graders for high academic expectations. Whether it’s having extended class periods so teachers have more time for instruction, study hall for students who need extra support, or on-site athletics coached by WJA teachers, our extended-day, extended-year model provides every opportunity for our students to be positioned for success in high school.

Take our student Allen, for example, who demonstrates how students benefit from an extended school day and year. When the WJA staff met him a few months ago, it was clear that he had been significantly underserved by his elementary school. Right away, his teachers could tell he was an incredibly hard worker, but he lacked the academic foundation he would need to thrive in middle school and beyond. This summer, he was able to spend extra time with his teachers, work hard to catch up in key subject areas and gain a little confidence before needing to adjust to the rigor and pace of the traditional school year. Allen’s story is just one snapshot of the positive outcomes from an extended school day and year model.

It seems so simple, but an extended school day and year can have extraordinary and lasting impacts on students while preventing months of learning loss and disengagement. And students aren’t the only ones who benefit. For parents, it means peace of mind that their child is engaged in safe, meaningful and educational activities throughout the day and year. And for teachers, it means less remediation, more time to focus on new material, and consistently engaged students.

Given our nation’s achievement and skills gap, especially among young adults from low-income communities, an extended school day and year has never been more urgent. We all have a role to play to ensure that all of our children have the same opportunities for school engagement. And it starts with rethinking the typical school calendar.

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