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NEW HAVEN, Conn. –– Talizha Jones returned from summer vacation after fourth grade to an unwelcome surprise at school: Students would have to stay in class until 4:15 p.m. four days a week.

“I was very upset,” the now-14-year-old recalled. “I was asking my grandma if I could switch schools.”

At the time, Talizha was at ground zero for a nascent school reform drive here. Based on a landmark teachers contract that made work rules more flexible, New Haven in 2010 tapped one of its lowest-performing schools, Brennan-Rogers, to undergo a turnaround, where the principal replaced two-thirds of teachers and imposed a longer school day.

Shorter school days can improve test scores
Talizha Jones, rehearsing an eighth-grade graduation song at Brennan-Rogers, wanted to switch schools when students were required to attend for nearly eight hours a day. (Photo: Melissa Bailey)

Principal Karen Lott extended studentsday by an hour and 25 minutes –– then scrapped the longer day one year later when it didn’t work out. The experiment had exhausted students and teachers without making progress towards its goal: closing the achievement gap between her largely poor and minority students and their suburban peers. Based on lessons from that year, New Haven has redirected its energy toward creating more time not for students, but for teachers to help each other improve their craft.

Prompted in part by federal incentives to expand learning time for students, districts serving high-poverty populations are leaping into longer school days, without always embracing what research has found: Simply adding time is not enough to raise student performance.

“You’d get to 2:30, 3 o’clock, and kids would be checked out. They really wanted to go home.” Jennifer Dauphinais, a teacher at Brennan-Rogers School

The extended time movement grew out of studies showing that students from well-off homes spend thousands hours more than low-income peers engaged in learning, often through after-school and summer activities.

The case in New Haven tells a cautionary tale of what can happen when a low-performing school rushes to add time to close that gap. It also reflects the latest focus of the expanded-time movement: making extra time for teachers to learn. Brennan-Rogers provides a look at a teacher collaboration experiment that is showing early promise –– and a case study for urban districts across the country looking for the best way to use extra time in school.

The Chain-Link Fence

Brennan-Rogers School, which serves 480 kids in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is perched amid three public housing projects in the isolated West Rock neighborhood. In 2010, the school sat amid hundreds of boarded-up apartments that were awaiting demolition. For a half-century until this May, a 10-foot chain-link fence separated the low-income neighborhood from the middle-class suburb of Hamden, so that families on the New Haven side had to take several circuitous bus rides to get to jobs or stores that were just down the street.

Talizha grew up in the Westville Manor public housing complex overlooking the school from a hill. While kids on the other side of the fence were taking piano lessons and visiting museums, she spent most of her after-school time hanging out at home.

Shorter school days can improve test scores
Brennan-Rogers Principal Karen Lott, conducting a teacher evaluation in 2011, faced numerous complications in rolling out a nearly eight-hour school day for students. (Melissa Bailey / New Haven Independent photo)

Brennan-Rogers was the result of a K-2 and a 3-8 school merging in 2010. Katherine Brennan School, built in the 1950s to serve families in public housing, was once a test site for the “community school” effort in which schools stayed open nights and weekends for basketball tournaments and neighborhood events. By the 2009-10 academic year, that effort had long since vanished along with the federal funding that made it possible. Brennan-Rogersliteracy rates were among the worst in the city: Only 12 percent of third graders reached state reading goals, compared with 57 percent statewide.

Student behavior was out of control back then. In 2009, a student was expelled for setting a girl’s hair on fire during class. Talizha, who had been there since kindergarten, said students would fight over little things. One day in elementary school, her classmate Malik Brown “snatched my paper, and I punched him,” Talizha said.

“Then I started choking her,” recalled Malik, now 13.

Talizha walked down the hill for school orientation in August 2010 to find everything had changed. Twenty-nine of 41 teachers were new. Kids had to wear uniforms. And the school day would be –– gulp –– nearly eight hours long.

Principal Lott said she introduced the longer day because kids needed to catch up academically to their peers across the chain-link urban-suburban divide. By adding 85 minutes to the city’s six-and-a-half-hour day, which is close to the national average, Brennan-Rogers followed the lead of charter schools that have relied on extra time to boost test scores for poor, minority students.

While extended time was once associated mostly with charter schools, Brennan-Rogers joined a wave of regular public schools extending learning beyond legal minimums. Over half a million American students, predominantly in urban areas, now attend public schools with extended learning time, with on average more than 200 extra hours per year.

Brennan-Rogers students began to attend school from 8:20 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. four days a week, with an early dismissal on Wednesdays. Much of the extra time went to enrichment activities like gardening and other student clubs and assemblies with student performances. Brennan-Rogers added 45 minutes a day for teacher collaboration while students were sent to art and gym. The school extended academic periods every day but Wednesday, when kids left between 1:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. while teachers stayed for training. The effort was funded by a federal grant to overhaul failing schools, which required them to expand learning time.

‘What Did We Do Wrong?’

Teachers were up for the challenge, said teacher Jennifer Dauphinais, who arrived in 2010. But students, who did not have advanced notice of the changes, felt punished.

“What did we do wrong?” her third-graders would ask her, Dauphinais recalled. “Where are all the people we liked? And why are you making us stay here forever?” The end of the school day dragged. “You’d get to 2:30, 3 o’clock, and kids would be checked out,” she said. “They really wanted to go home.”

Melissa Rhone, a fourth-grade teacher, joined the effort straight from college. Facing many new teachers, students tried to “test us,” she said. Rhone struggled so much with classroom management that she was flagged as a low-performer through New Haven’s new evaluation system, which meant she risked losing her job if she didnt improve. The work was all-consuming, she said: She would go home, have dinner with her husband and reflect on the day. Then she would plan for the next day until it was time for bed.

“It was a tough first year,” she said. But she said she valued having more time with students to build relationships, especially “because lots of kids had just been abandoned by everybody they had known” at the school.

Talizha said the longer day was “horrible,” but her grandmother wouldnt let her switch schools because Brennan-Rogers was convenient and her father had gone there.

Most parents didnt favor the new schedule, according to Shenea Crimley, a mother who now works at the school as a teachers aide. Parents struggled to find child care when kids came home early on Wednesdays.

“I’m one of the very few that liked it,” Crimley said. Her kids, including one voracious reader, were in kindergarten, first and eighth grade at the time. She hoped the four longer days would accelerate their learning.

Shorter school days can improve test scores
Teacher Melissa Rhone credits extra peer collaboration time with helping her grow from a struggling teacher to a mentor. (Photo: Melissa Bailey)

As the school year wore on, in March 2011, Principal Lott confessed to the local school board that teachers were “fighting fatigue” from the longer day and a slew of new instructional initiatives.

Lott concluded the longer-day experiment wasnt worth continuing. It had burned out students and teachers without significantly improving academic performance. The school was safer and more orderly, but test scores actually dropped. And the longer day had unexpected complications: While the teachers union had allowed teachers to work longer hours with extra pay, unions for support staff had not. That meant Lott had to stagger teachers aides’ schedules to cover classrooms. For the last 90 minutes of the day, no one staffed the front office because the secretary had gone home. Teachers enjoyed the extra 45 minutes of collaboration, but that time was often cut short by walking kids to gym class. It felt rushed, Rhone recalled.

Lott proposed returning students to a traditional six-and-a-half-hour day. The change came partly due to bus schedules. It also followed Lott’s conclusion that extending the day in a turnaround school, amid other abrupt changes, is hard on kids –– harder than at a charter school, where families sign up for the longer day from the get-go. Instead of keeping kids in school longer, teachers needed to better utilize the time they already had, Lott decided. She drafted a new schedule addressing the staffing challenges and parental and student pushback that came with the longer student day, while retaining the component that seemed most promising: teacher collaboration. She proposed teachers show up early for an uninterrupted hour of collaboration every day — a schedule that had been tested at another experimental school across town with encouraging results.

Teachers, who by union contract got a say in the changes, agreed with Lotts conclusion. They voted, with a sense of relief, to return to the shorter day.

Teacher-To-Teacher Time

For the past three years, teachers have met for an hour each morning without kids. Some days, they work with colleagues teaching the same grade to plan field trips or interdisciplinary projects on topics like slavery. Other days, they learn how to use iPads and Apple TVs. Teachers also comb through student data, help each other plan lessons and analyze how those lessons went.

Rhone said the extra time has helped her grow from a struggling teacher who risked getting fired to a mentor teacher with leadership roles in the school. Though the day is shorter, instruction is more efficient, said sixth-grade teacher Tavares Bussey. “The kids are getting more out of it.”

Shorter school days can improve test scores
Sixth-grade teacher Tavares Bussey says even though the school day is shorter now, students are getting more out of the time they have. (Photo: Melissa Bailey)

The past two years, Brennan-Rogers has posted the highest gains in the district on state standardized tests. Student behavior has calmed down. Based on lessons from Brennan-Rogers, New Haven has shifted its focus to adding time for teachers instead of for kids.

“We’ve focused on making the time that we have already with kids more useful, more powerful,” Superintendent Garth Harries said. The latest teachers’ contract requires all schools to add 15 minutes a day for teacher collaboration time.

The Brennan-Rogers case reflects challenges faced by schools nationwide that are part of the federal turnaround grant program, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, which advocates for extended learning time. Federal authorities require those schools to add instructional time, but they often rush into the changes without enough advance planning, and they dont add enough time for teacher collaboration and training.

Schools can overcome those challenges by taking a full year to plan their schedules thoughtfully, Davis argued. She contends that schools dont need to abandon extra student time to create more time for teachers.

“It’s a shame that a district school that had moved in this direction is going backwards,” Davis said of Brennan-Rogers. A recent report by her organization found that expanded-time schools are most successful in boosting student achievement when students and teachers both get more time to learn.

Gail DeBlasio, who replaced Principal Lott last fall, said after spending three years focusing on helping teachers improve instruction, the school is now ready to introduce a modest increase to the length of the student day. In September, Brennan-Rogers plans to add 15 minutes a day for students. Still, the focus won’t be on more academics. Instead, there will be a 30-minute morning meeting for kids to work on communication skills and conflict resolution.

DeBlasio said the city’s academic requirements are so stringent that her staff doesn’t have time to teach the interpersonal skills that students “urgently need.” In the housing projects behind the school, a student’s 21-year-old brother was shot dead last October. Many other students are exposed to gun violence where they live. Students need a space to process trauma and learn to de-escalate conflict in their own lives, she argued.

“It’s going to be difficult to concentrate in class” while dealing with trauma and unresolved conflict, DeBlasio said. “We’re hoping this will have a significant impact.”

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Letters to the Editor

4 Letters

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  1. As a public school teacher and a parent I know that the attitude of learning and behavior comes from the home. We need to strengthen our families first (especially in urban areas) and then you will see “Real growth” not questionable growth on tests. Real Growth means children become respectful, individually talented, and involved members of society and their community. The founders knew this so every time they talked about education their idea of a textbook was the Bible. It includes great literary works as well as history, economics, law, and every other subject that applies to human life. Most of all it promotes the idea of individual liberty and personal choice/consequences which is severely lacking in ALL public school settings today! we teach kids they are here today and gone tomorrow so live it up while you can…is it no wonder the students act they way they do with violence and disrespect?!?

  2. “It’s a shame that a district school that had moved in this direction is going backwards,” Davis said of Brennan-Rogers.

    No, what;s a shame is that we can’t just go with what works and that something is only seen as valid when some expert says so. Every school is different, just like local cultures are. What works is what works, not just what is prescribed.

  3. Yes, the miserable onus of federal standardization telling the front lines soldiers (teachers) how to do their jobs as a means to ….wait for it….improve standardized test scores! Nothing else matters in this era of devolving public education. And while the federal government fiddles, children across america burn in poverty. It always has been, is, and always will be, about poverty. In the mean time, let’s keep blaming and denigrating our teachers and public schools. What madness!

  4. If you want to know what works, have an outside agency test all the kids every three years in reading, writing and arithmetic and compare the results.

    From my own experience, and from what I hear from recent teachers, the biggest problem is kids who don’t stay in their seats and try to learn. What used to fix that was a pointer (stick) that the teacher carried and teachers had carried since schools began.

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