By Marco Poggio
Until two years ago, Kaylin Hernandez, 12, attended a Catholic school on the South Side that let out at 3 p.m.
But after transferring to KIPP Aspire Academy, she started the school day at 8:20 a.m. and stayed until 4:55 p.m., including a 90-minute period in the afternoon that students can use for tutoring or to work on the school’s newspaper.
“I’ve grown so much. I read (at) like a 10th-grade reading level,” said Hernandez, a seventh-grader who enjoys math, reading and singing in the school’s choir.
She’s one reason why some educators believe that they have found a simple, effective way to enhance student performance: Keep them in class longer.
The extra cost is a formidable obstacle to “extended learning,” and Texas lawmakers have been reluctant even to allow its expansion. But it can improve grades and college readiness, say advocates, who include some charter school operators in San Antonio whose kids stay in class up to two hours longer than the prevailing seven-hour school day.
“We want great teaching every day, and we want more of it,” said Mark Larson, CEO of KIPP San Antonio, which includes KIPP Aspire, a high school where the day is nearly nine hours long.
A database maintained by the nonprofit National Center on Time and Learning shows 157 public schools in Texas, mostly charters, currently operate with expanded day schedules, lengthier semesters or both. A handful of them are in San Antonio, and most involve slightly longer school days and extra tutoring.
“The idea is that it’s more and better time,” said Lisa Pryor, the center’s managing director of state and district engagement, which has produced research linking classroom time with academic performance, particularly for low-income and high-risk students.
“Our eyes are upon Texas,” Pryor said, paraphrasing the Longhorns’ football fight song. The center works with administrators to redesign their schedules from scratch and is interested in doing more work in the Lone Star State.
Students at the KIPP campus for grades three through eight have more time to learn math and to practice reading or writing than they would in traditional district schools, Larson said.
“Teachers make lessons superintriguing and exciting, and they get you engaged with what you’re learning,” Gwen Salomon, 14, an eighth-grader there who loves reading, said last month as the school year neared its end.
Students also can stay until 6 p.m to do homework or get more tutoring if they need it.
“Sometimes I wish I got off earlier,” said Brooke Casey, 14, who likes natural science. “But I also see the result of staying longer. I get to learn a lot more.”
KIPP Aspire students also start school two weeks earlier than their peers in traditional public schools. Charter schools are exempt from state calendar dictates, including the mandatory school start date of the fourth Monday in August that the Legislature enacted in 2006.
Some lawmakers have tried to undo that calendar, which was backed by tourism industry interests that continue to regard shorter summer vacations as a revenue threat, said Mandi Sheridan Kimball, director of public policy and government affairs at Children at Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit that advocates for education reforms.
Only the Houston Independent School District in 2011 obtained a special clause in the Texas Education Code granting some of its schools flexibility on school year start and duration. In the most recent legislative session, none of the seven bills filed to change the school calendar or allow more local control made it to a vote, Sheridan Kimball said.
“It’s just politically dangerous. There’s a lot of money that is pushing back on it,” she said. “The reality is that these school districts have populations that need to be served differently, and more times than not, those are not the kids that are going to Six Flags.”
The National Center on Time and Learning has collected case studies in six states that it cites as evidence that extended class time can improve schooling.
It points to Kuss Middle School in Massachusetts, which was defined as “chronically underperforming” in 2004 and in nine years closed its achievement gap with the state average in state assessment scores. That was after a complete redesign of its schedule and inclusion of more class hours each day.
Supporters of the traditional school calendar say changing it would be economically unsustainable and cause discomfort to students and families. They cite the high energy costs of air-conditioning Texas schools in August and the potential loss to the agriculture industry of seasonal migrant workers who must travel out of state to earn a living.
“Calendars don’t teach kids. Teachers teach kids,” said Tina Bruno of San Antonio, a mother and organizer of a group of parents, educators and business owners called the Coalition for a Traditional School Year. “Until the schools are properly using the time they’ve already been given, we don’t see the benefit of adding even more time to their schedules.”
Skepticism about extended learning is not only political. Some scholars who studied modified school schedules at the national level think its effectiveness has been overstated.
“We don’t really observe any significant increase in the kids’ performance,” said Gene Glass, a senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center and a research professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has studied the issue since the 1980s. To see a tangible academic improvement, Glass said, students would have to attend school year-round, something that would be both financially overwhelming and unpopular.
In a recent poll of Texas voters conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen, 59 percent of respondents were against an earlier school start date. That’s down from 2005, when traditional calendar supporters had nearly two-thirds support.
“It absolutely is a financial issue,” said Pascual Gonzalez, spokesman for Northside Independent School District. “The state of Texas provides funding for 180 days, for ‘x’ amount of hours per day. That’s it.” Teacher compensation and operational costs make longer days and school years an unrealistic future option, he said.
“That’s not to say that it’s a bad idea,” Gonzalez added. “Extended learning can be very beneficial to students. But those other issues have to be addressed.”