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As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ushers in a huge expansion of after-school programs for middle schoolers, educators and advocates are debating whether the new programs are academic enough. How students and teachers should spend their time when kids are behind is among the most pressing and vexing questions in education today, and it’s one we have spent the past year exploring.

Related: NYC’s ramped up after-school programs offer safety, supper and sports

Our Time to Learn series has taken us from New York to Chicago, Detroit, Santa Ana and beyond. Examining the length and content of regular school days and after-school and summer programming, we’ve heard a common refrain of quality over quantity. In other words, if you’re going to give students more time to learn, it must be quality time if you want to get results.

Longer school days debate
“The achievement gap is very real, and it’s killing my people,” says Clarence McNeil, a fifth-grade science teacher at North Star Academy’s Downtown Middle School in Newark. (Photo: Uncommon Schools)

Our two stories on Chicago’s longer school day questioned whether cash-strapped schools there were getting the promised resources to go with extra instructional minutes. We visited a school in New Haven that scrapped a longer day for students to give teachers more planning time. And we met charter school teachers who burned out from exhaustion with very long school days and years.

When there isn’t enough money for everything, is it better to start with time and build quality or work on quality first in the time already allotted? Many educators prefer the latter. But it would be a mistake to conclude that more time in school isn’t needed for students from impoverished families. We have clearly seen a need for more learning hours alongside a host of other reforms to make the time meaningful.

Our series was inspired by research showing that by sixth grade, a child from a poor background has spent an estimated 6,000 fewer hours learning than a peer from an affluent household, who tends to have more exposure to everything from books to museums, from travel to summer camp.

Related: Anatomy of a 6,000-hour deficit

And that’s assuming school days are all spent learning. A new report from the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles shows that they’re not: Students at high-poverty high schools face more disruptions during the academic day, from more teacher absences and insufficient qualified substitutes to building problems and calls from the main office. Based on a survey of 800 California teachers, the report concludes that students at high-poverty schools lose a half-hour a day of instruction more than students at low-poverty schools. So much for making up for lost time.

Giving all students the time and opportunity to fulfill their potential is a massive societal undertaking, not an either-or proposition.

Again and again, we heard that students need engaging lessons in a variety of subjects, not endless test prep in reading and math. Much talk in the field centers on teacher training and planning time to make instruction effective and how to cultivate community partnerships bringing in the arts and sports and easing teachers’ workload. The UCLA report makes a case for action far beyond that. High-poverty schools are often in old buildings where a lack of air conditioning and finicky boilers result in very uncomfortable — and therefore very distracting — learning conditions much of the year. Many schools would also benefit from restrictions on use of the loud speaker; in the neediest classrooms, “please pardon the interruption” is an all too common refrain.

Related: More time in school, with a drain on Chicago’s teachers

As both a reporter and editor on the Time to Learn series, I’ve often been reminded that middle class kids don’t get ahead sitting behind a desk. While poor kids need time in school to catch up, they also need exposure to the world beyond it. The new after-school programs in New York don’t get students out of their neighborhoods, but they do provide exposure to arts and sports. In Houston, we heard about YES Prep charter schools connecting their students with the same kind of summer camps, wilderness expeditions and international travel that their affluent peers experience routinely. Families spend months fundraising, defying stereotypes that they have no resources. And parents, who are often reluctant to let their children leave home in low-income communities, become more open-minded to the idea of their kids going away to college.

A memorable interview for me was with Raul Arias, a Chicago high school student who quit his basketball and cross-country teams after the city lengthened the school day because later practice times would make it unsafe for him to travel home. I’ll also remember Clarence McNeil, an African-American teacher at Newark’s North Star Academy who wakes up at 4 a.m. to get to work. “I have to be here because the amount of time that we spend on this is absolutely necessary. We’re at war,” he told me. “The achievement gap is very real, and it’s killing my people.”

Giving all students the time and opportunity to fulfill their potential is a massive societal undertaking, not an either-or proposition.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read the entire Time to Learn series.

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