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New York City’s chance to reinvent better middle schools

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The City of New York is offering an unprecedented opportunity that could benefit as many as 50,000 families in the five boroughs.  The de Blasio administration has made $131 million available to principals of 371 middle schools to offer free, high-quality, daily after-school programs by partnering with youth-serving community organizations, such as settlement houses. This would more than double the size of New York’s municipal after-school system.

As principals return to school from spring break, many are considering whether to sign on under the required terms, primarily that programs would operate every school day, and for hours long enough to accommodate working parents. Schools and their community partners have until May 9 to design programs and apply for city funds.

Christopher Caruso is Senior Vice President for ExpandED Schools at TASC (The After-School Corporation).

Christopher Caruso is Senior Vice President for ExpandED Schools at TASC (The After-School Corporation).

If school leaders surveyed their parents, I’m guessing most would hear a resounding “Yes.” But this could be a moment for schools and their prospective partners to engage parents in a bigger question: If they could start from scratch to design an engaging and balanced school day with all the learning experiences they would want for their kids — before and after 3 p.m. — what would that look like? Would they increase science inquiry? Add more art? An additional daily reading period?

Middle schools now have a chance to bring in dozens of community educators and activity specialists to staff extra learning time. Instead of seeing this as a way to offer traditional after-school programs, schools and their communities should consider going big by re-inventing better schools. This is their opportunity to make transformative change by expanding the school day for all kids in a school or a given grade.

What’s the difference between school plus after-school and the longer school day I’m proposing here?

A high quality after-school program can have great benefits for the sub-set of students whose parents race to enroll them before program slots fill up. Kids get the sports and arts enrichments that are often missing from the traditional school day, plus nutritional meals and help with their homework.

But a problem with optional after-school programs is that often the kids who most need the extra, inspiring learning experiences — kids who are the most disengaged or perhaps those with non-English-speaking parents — are not the ones who enroll.

When a school expands learning for all students, then teachers and community educators can collaborate across the full day from 8 to 5:30 or 6. They can begin to make up for what the nonprofit organization TASC (The After-School Corporation),  has calculated is a 6,000-hour gap in learning time between poor and middle-class kids from the time of their birth to sixth grade.

Schools can stagger the work hours of teachers or assistant principals. They can start the day with yoga and hold the math until students wake up. They can schedule field trips that run past 3 p.m. They can schedule a learning opportunity of any kind after 3 without half or more of the students missing out.

In the 20 Middle School ExTRA schools where TASC works with the New York City Department of Education, Harvard EdLabs and Robin Hood to boost reading proficiency, the whole sixth grade stays until at least 5 p.m. Schools are able to tutor struggling readers without stigmatizing them (which is one of the worst things you can do to a 12-year-old). While some sixth-graders are reading “The Hunger Games” in their book clubs, the rest of their classmates are also busy at school, building robots or organizing a health fair.

In the progressive way it set the terms for expanding New York’s after-school system, New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) has made an expansion of the school day possible.

For the first time since the system was built, schools and community organizations must join forces and agree to operate as a single team, setting common goals for student outcomes, hiring staff together, and jointly creating school schedules so that enrichments after 3 p.m. align with academics before 3.

Under these terms, schools can certainly choose to add strong, traditional after-school programs that serve a portion of kids. And this will be the right choice for many schools. In some, an extended day may not fit with family preferences. Or perhaps the community will want longer learning days for sixth- and seventh-graders but optional participation for eighth-graders. That’s the beauty of the city’s request-for-proposal process. It encourages parents, schools and communities to have these conversations.

But there’s nothing in the DYCD rules to prevent schools from expanding the school day for all.

What stops many community organizations and schools from heading down this road is legitimate anxiety attached to a big risk. What happens if students won’t stick around for the expanded day, or if parents opt their kids out? Principals can tell parents and students that their school day goes from 8 to 5:30, but they can’t mandate attendance in the longer learning hours.

We’ve seen that when principals set an expectation for parents that the school day goes until 5:30 or 6 — and when they tell parents that students will miss important instructional time if they leave early — then attendance in the expanded hours is healthy.

What’s critical is to change the school culture so that more hours of enrichment and support are not perceived as optional, but as part of the real school day by the full school community of teachers and families. Considering that kids have spent 80% of their waking hours not in school — in other words, on the same schedule as our grandparents, who could prosper without finishing high school — we know this adjustment could take time. But as a city, shouldn’t we reward the risk-takers and have a little patience with culture change?

Christopher Caruso is Senior Vice President for ExpandED Schools at TASC (The After-School Corporation).

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