Kids in many charters spend more hours — and more days — in class
Charles Fields doesn't mind being in school until 5 p.m.— even though he knows most of his peers would regard it as punishment, like detention.
"I like it because I get to learn more," said the eighth-grader, juggling books under his arm. "I'm doing the same math as my cousins … and they're in high school."
Charles is not some academic superstar. He describes himself as a "regular kid" who likes barbecue, basketball and just happens to attend KIPP Ascend, a charter school on the city's West Side.
For KIPPsters like Charles, the day starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Class time also includes one Saturday a month and lasts three weeks longer into summer than traditional public schools.
"It's a game changer," said April Goble, executive director of KIPP Chicago, which operates two schools in the city and 99 across the country.
While the nation wrings its hands over urban education, expanding the length of the school day and year is at the top of the "to-do" list for a flock of policymakers and reformers.
The drumbeat over instructional time is getting louder due to a confluence of forces, including Friday's opening of "Waiting for Superman", a film being touted as doing for education what director Davis Guggenheim's earlier documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth,", did for climate change. It follows five families who are trying to get into urban charter schools to escape their bleak neighborhood schools.
Other factors pushing change include a Democrat in the White House willing to challenge teachers unions and an increasingly global economy, where some argue that competing in the 21st century will be tougher if we maintain a school calendar from the 19th.
Although students from other countries are in school longer — South Korea (204 days), Japan (200 days) and Australia (197 days) — the U.S. remains at about 180 days a year, five days a week, six hours a day. Illinois requires 176 days of "actual pupil attendance," but most districts shave off a couple of days, with permission, for teacher training or parent conferences, according to a Tribune report last week.
Some see charter schools — which are publicly funded, but independently run — as the best way to change the calendar.
Of the nation's 655 "expanded time" schools, about 75 percent are charters, according to the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston-based nonprofit, which tracks the trend. Charters enroll only 5 percent of the nation's students, serving a heavily minority and disadvantaged population.
While there are varying degrees of charters — and some fare no better than the neighborhood schools they compete against — their autonomy gives them free rein in hiring, firing and lengthening the day, usually without union approval.
Charter students typically log two more hours per day than traditional public schools, which advocates say provides an edge. Of the top 10 nonselective Chicago high schools with the highest ACT scores, seven are charters, according to state data.
Mayor Richard Daley has long been a proponent of extending the school day. Though the last time Chicago Public Schools tinkered with the schedule was in 2004-05, when it tacked on 15 minutes per day — and shortened the year from 40 to 38.6 weeks, according to the district.
But last month, CPS announced that it will add 90 minutes of online reading and math instruction to the schedules of 15 elementary schools. The pilot program, called "Additional Learning Opportunities," will start in November and use nonteachers, allowing the district to circumvent the Chicago Teachers Union.
"Of course, there are contractual issues," said Monique Bond, CPS spokeswoman. "But until we can reach a happy medium, this is a solution that achieves a real gain for our students."
The teachers union questioned the efficacy of such a program, voicing concern that it might be about "more drill" than learning. And even advocates acknowledge that extra time in a mediocre or poor educational setting will not necessarily help children succeed.
At KIPP Ascend — which serves 330 students in fifth to eighth grades from the Austin, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale neighborhoods — the halls are plastered with upbeat posters and university pennants. It's not just a pipe dream: Last year, every eighth grader was accepted to a college preparatory high school, said Goble, adding that there is no pre-screening of applicants.
A typical day varies, depending on the grade, but a fifth-grade schedule might have three hours of literacy instruction (which also includes social studies and science), 80 minutes of math and 80 minutes of leadership development, which hones such skills as conflict resolution.
Aqueelah Shabazz, Charles' mother, said she loves that teachers and staff talk to him about college every day — then back it up with time in the classroom. "No way would he be prepared if he were getting out of school at 2:30," she said.
The schedule is much the same on the South Side, at the University of Chicago Charter School, which has four campuses in the Woodlawn, North Kenwood, Oakland and Grand Boulevard neighborhoods. The school receives between 1,200 and 1,500 applications, but has space for only 400, giving priority to children who live in the community.
LaTonya Maxwell's son, Cameron is also an eighth grader. She cites the nurturing environment — but also the extended day that boosts scholarship when so many other children are in front of the TV.
"It's not just about time … it's about exposure," Maxwell said. "He's had guitar, computer, foreign language. … And it's exposure that, honestly, I could not have afforded on my own."
Both mothers hope such immersion will mitigate the grim outcomes that are all too common for African-American men in Illinois, where the on-time high school graduation rate is 47 percent compared with 83 percent for white males, reports The Schott Foundation for Public Education.
"I don't want him to be a statistic," Maxwell said. "My son is headed for something better."