Khyrie Brown wants more for his school: more art, more music, more books, more laptops, even more paper towels in the bathrooms.
And although staying longer each day at Blaine Academics Plus, a K-8 school in Strawberry Mansion, isn’t at the top of his agenda, Brown says that what educators call “extended time” can help.
“Last week was the first time I went to Saturday school,” Blaine’s optional PSSA prep classes, said the 14-year-old 8th grader.
“My friend was like, ‘Just come.’ I said, ‘School’s already five days a week, and now it’s six?’ But then I wound up going, and the college student I was with, we got a lot of work done.”
Brown in February gained public attention with an impassioned speech at Bill Green’s first School Reform Commission meeting, inviting the new SRC chair to visit Blaine to witness its struggles.
At the time, there was no way Brown could know that Green would not only visit, but also would announce a big change that could allow Blaine to implement one of Green’s signature priorities: longer school days.
Next year, Blaine’s principal will be able to hire or keep only those teachers willing to implement the school’s new “transformation” plan. Principal Gianeen Powell is developing that plan with a small team of her teachers, backed by a $1.5 million grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).
Powell’s blueprint isn’t final, but “I hope she’s planning to put together a team that wants to spend that extra time,” said Green.
Not everyone at Blaine is thrilled with the requirement that as a “transformation school,” it must replace at least half of the current teaching staff.
There is another problem: Under the teachers’ current contract, more time from them costs more money, and Green has said repeatedly that schools shouldn’t count on that.
The District’s budget crisis has led to the elimination of many afterschool activities (outside of high school sports) because schools no longer have money to pay teachers the hourly extracurricular rate called for in their contract. Some have cobbled together programs like Blaine’s seven-week Saturday school, which serves about 80 of its 400 students, by using volunteers and community partners. And a number of teachers have continued to lead clubs or coach sports teams without compensation.
But how can the District offer all of the students in a school like Blaine the kind of focused, academic instructional time Green has cited as most useful, without spending more money?
“Everything right now is a setup for the teachers’ contract,” said James “Torch” Lytle, a former Philadelphia administrator and Trenton superintendent now at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “[Green] could tell the teachers, ‘We’re going to open schools earlier, keep them open later, and that’s going to be one of the terms of employment.”
More can be better
Since his days on City Council, Green, like many education reformers, has argued that longer days could boost academic outcomes – particularly if students spend more time studying core subjects like reading, math, and science.
“Every student, regardless of his or her academic performance, would benefit from additional time in the classroom,” he wrote in a 2010 policy paper. Upon taking the helm of the SRC, he said, “There have to be longer school days, longer school years.”
Green cites extended-day charters like KIPP and Young Scholars as models for the District. He’s been influenced by the work of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who spent five years studying American schools and has said that the single best way to improve them would be “extended time, any way you can do it.”
At Blaine, few would disagree that almost any kind of expanded time would be an improvement for a school that last year offered no afterschool activities at all.
“A longer day is not necessarily a better day,” cautioned Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. But done right, he said, the kinds of activities that often come with longer days can be a “simple way” of keeping students engaged.
Jordan knows this firsthand.
“I was a talker in school,” he recalled. “I can remember going to my afterschool yearbook club, and my teacher saying, ‘Ms. Brown told me you talked all period in geometry. If you continue doing that, you’re not going to be part of this club.’
“And that was all that had to be said.”
Powell told the same kind of story. “I was a big athlete in school,” she said. “I did well [in class] because the coach was getting on me!”
So when Blaine was awarded its PSP “transformation” grant, Powell surveyed parents about the kind of extended time they favored.
The results showed strong support for traditional afterschool activities like art, music and sports. Parents were less interested in the kind of structured academic programming Green has cited, Powell said, not just because they want their children to have fun, but because they know that sports, clubs, and other extracurriculars help keep students on track in the classroom.
Parents also want their children safe and supervised, which is why Powell doesn’t ever want to see a repeat of last year, when the school offered nothing after 3:09 p.m.
“That was the first year Blaine ever experienced something like that,” she said. “My children weren’t in homework help. They weren’t in art or basketball or softball. They were out in the street.”
That’s the most dangerous place for students to be – especially, as studies have shown, between the end of school and dinnertime.
Khyrie Brown’s mother, Dawn Hawkins, said that when her son leaves school, he must be home or at a trusted friend’s house. “If he’s not there, he gets punished,” Hawkins said. “I don’t play. This is a very dangerous neighborhood.”
Charter schools know about these fears, said Lytle, and longer days are often part of those schools’ appeal.
“Right from the outset, I think the District made a bad mistake in not learning from the charter schools,” said Lytle. “The District is simply not competitive right now, and Bill Green knows that.”