It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday, and all around the city – or the country for that matter – kids are filing out of school, headed for waiting parents or the bus.
Not, however, at the KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School. Here, teacher Josie Santiago walks about a room with a dozen 7th and 8th graders, helping them with homework in Spanish, history, math, or other subjects, or with life in general.
“Make eye contact with me,” she tells one student as part of a mini-lecture on slacking off.
A room away, teacher Amoreena Olaya talks with advanced students about Macbeth: “We’re really challenging them,” she says.
Elsewhere, other teachers convene a documentary film club, tutor math, prepare students for the upcoming state standardized tests, drill the step team, and preside over a study hall for students who have been acting out and need a “quiet space.” The students will stay until about 4:45.
KIPP West Philadelphia is one of a small but growing number of schools around the country to use “extended learning time,” expanding both the regular school day and the school calendar beyond the traditional framework of 180 days that start between 8 and 9 a.m. and end around 2:30 or 3 p.m.
The schedule varies at KIPP’s four schools in Philadelphia – an elementary, two middle schools, and a high school. But in general, KIPP students spend nine hours in school each day and start school three weeks earlier than the norm. That compares to a seven-hour day in District schools. KIPP also has occasional Saturday sessions.
“We look at it as a pressure release,” says Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia Schools. “Our students come to us largely behind. We’re taking more time to catch our kids up in reading and math without sacrificing art, music, social studies, and PE.”
Starting the school year earlier is seen as almost the educational equivalent of spring training in baseball, helping to assess student needs and orienting new students and parents to the school culture.
A few other charter schools, including those run by Scholar Academies, also have an extended day. Scholar Academies and Mastery Charter Schools also start their year in August.
A 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research of 43 KIPP middle schools across the country found that students in the schools improved at a faster rate than a comparable group in traditional district schools. It concluded that the longer day was a likely factor.
For Mannella and others at KIPP, having the extra time works only if it is well-planned and geared to individual students.
“We want to see that we’re filling a need, not just filling the day,” says Santiago, who is in her second year at KIPP. She previously taught at Kensington High School.
“Every year it looks a little different,” Mannella says. “The mechanics change constantly. We moved middle school field trips to Saturdays. The middle schools used to dismiss at 5, but we found there was nothing magical about that.”
Mannella says that the ability to experiment with the extra time has proven invaluable. But such experimentation can also be difficult in financially strapped public schools like those in Philadelphia.
“In my observation, it takes schools a couple of years to find out how to use the extra time,” says Elaine Simon, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Studies program, who worked closely with University City High School for several years before it closed in June.
The school had been designated a Promise Academy – giving it a longer day and school on some Saturdays. But, Simon said, “There weren’t a lot of resources and guidance about what they were supposed to do.”
“It was trial and error,” recalls A.J. Schiera, who taught social studies at University City for the three years it was a Promise Academy. For students who took advantage of the time, “it worked really well,” he said. “There was a lot of opportunity for one-on-one interactions.”
But by the time the school began to figure out what worked and what didn’t, the District pulled the plug. So although University City had started to create a school culture that supported academics and student grades were improving, Schiera says, “We couldn’t build on that.”
For one KIPP parent, the extended day and calendar are a blessing in every way but one: School sometimes starts on her birthday – in August.
“In the beginning, it seemed crazy,” says Annette Strickland, who has five children in KIPP schools. Since it was still midsummer, “the kids were asking ‘Why are we in school?’”
But she likes that the earlier start includes programs that bring parents into the buildings and make family members feel like part of a school community.
And she particularly values the extended day during the year. “It’s been fantastic,” she says. “It gives them the extra time to learn.”
Strickland, a single parent, works as a parking garage manager at Delaware County Memorial Hospital in Upper Darby. She usually gets to her home in West Philadelphia between 4:30 and 5 p.m. after picking up her youngest child, Alyce, in kindergarten at the KIPP elementary school on Westmoreland Street in North Philadelphia. The others arrive from middle school or high school about that time.
While she would gladly help with homework after fixing dinner, she says, a parent is no substitute for a teacher: “Their homework is long and detailed,” and her own school years are well behind her, she said.
“I haven’t had algebra and geometry in years,” she said, laughing, as she waited in the hall for Alyce at school. “I’m sitting at the table, and all these Xs and Ys? Please.
“The less questions they have, the better for the parents,” she adds. With the extra time at school, she says, “They can explain to teachers what they need.”
Paul Jablow is a regular freelance contributor to the Notebook.
This story was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.
This article will appear in the Notebook's forthcoming print edition focusing on using school time wisely, due out next week.