Photo by Chris Limb on Flickr.

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has said she’d like to extend the school day, but the teachers’ union contract limits it to 7½ hours. To get around that, schools can partner with community organizations that provide the additional learning time.

Washington Teachers Union President Liz Davis has said she’s skeptical about extending the school day because she hasn’t seen any research showing it boosts student achievement. In fact, there’s no shortage of research saying that extended learning time, when done well, does that very thing. Last year, 7 out of the 8 DCPS schools that implemented some form of extended day saw major gains on DC’s standardized tests, prompting Henderson to say she wants to bring the concept to more schools.

Nationally, community organizations, which in the past have provided afterschool programs, are repositioning themselves to give students a more seamless extended day experience. One that is doing that locally, and seeing good results, is a middle-school program called Higher Achievement.

In the past, afterschool (or “out-of-school”) programs were well-meaning but often ineffective in moving the needle for students academically. Often they worked independently of one another and of the school system.

Now, according to a recent study, cities and school districts are beginning to bring more coordination to these efforts. And in some cases, nonprofits are partnering with schools to align the academic side of their offerings to the curriculum. They’re also trying to foster the idea that programs taking place after 3:30 are a part of the regular school day.

Higher Achievement founded in DC

Higher Achievement (HA) is a variation on that model. Founded in DC by a Gonzaga College High School teacher in 1975, the organization has long conducted intensive afterschool and summer programs for disadvantaged but motivated students.  Students get help with homework, engage in additional academic work, and also participate in a variety of recreational and character-building activities.

The program, using a combination of part-time paid staff and volunteer mentors working with small groups, has achieved impressive results. One study found that students in HA gain the equivalent of 48 days of learning in math and an extra 30 days of learning in reading per year. The program also says that students’ average GPA goes up from 2.5 to 3.5 by 8th grade.

Now active in three cities in addition to DC, and working with a total of about 1,000 middle school students a year, the organization says that 96% of its alumni graduate from high school and 93% attend college. While data on the college completion rate is less clear, DC Executive Director Katherine Roboff says it’s about 75%.

A recent study done by the highly regarded research group MRDC found that the DC-area program produced significant gains in both reading and math scores, although for reasons that are unclear only the math gains persisted after 4 years. HA also increased the chances that kids would apply to, and be accepted at, high-quality high schools.

Changing the model

Despite that success, HA, like some other afterschool programs, is planning to change its model. In the past it’s drawn kids from a number of different schools to one school that serves as a “magnet” site for the program. Now it’s aiming to take a “single-school” approach. That means that each site will draw all its students from the school where it’s located.

Roboff says that while the magnet approach has worked well, the program can have a greater impact by partnering with particular schools. The idea is not to serve every student in a school, because, Roboff says, HA is not for everyone. It requires a significant time commitment: students stay from 3:20 until 8 pm 3 days a week (they get dinner). They also attend a 5-day-a-week, all-day program for 6 weeks every summer. And they commit to staying in the program for 3 or 4 years.

HA is piloting its new single-school model this year at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7 and hopes to expand the model to several more DCPS middle schools over the next few years. Kelly Miller is one of the DCPS schools that has its own extended learning time program and saw significant test-score gains last year, apparently as a result.

But Kelly Miller’s program, which students who aren’t in HA attend, appears significantly less intensive. It requires students to stay an additional hour two days a week and attend a Saturday Academy. There’s no summer component. (I was unable to obtain information from DCPS on the exact number of additional hours the Kelly Miller program provides.)

HA has used Kelly Miller as one of its magnet sites for 7 years, but is moving towards drawing 100% of the students from the school as existing students graduate from the program. Right now about a third of the 85 students HA serves at the site attend Kelly Miller. In the past, only about 15 came from the school.

Ultimately HA hopes to directly serve about a third of the students at each single-school site. But it also plans to provide some services to a wider group. At Kelly Miller, for example, it plans to offer high school placement help to all 8th graders. And it hopes the core group that is in the HA program will exert enough influence to affect the entire school culture.

While it’s too soon to know if that will happen, the program is already seeing greater coordination with the Kelly Miller faculty. Two teachers work as paid staff in the afterschool program. One of them also worked last summer at HA’s summer program and was able to help tweak its curriculum to better align with Kelly Miller’s. Other teachers from the school occasionally volunteer to sub.

Roboff says the program has tried to recruit teachers from its kids’ schools to work at its magnet sites but hasn’t had as much success as it has with the single-school model.

Advantages of partnership model

If you want to create a “seamless” extended day experience, you might think it would make sense to simply extend the school day using all of the school’s teachers, not just the ones who volunteer for the job. But, even aside from union contract considerations, there can be advantages to partnering with an outside organization. For one thing, at the end of a school day, teachers are likely to be tired. Bringing in fresh troops, including volunteers, can be an asset.

And kids seem to enjoy the change of format and, in most cases, personnel. Students in HA do spend time on academic subjects, but they also have opportunities to take dance, go outside and play basketball, and experiment with things like art and photography—activities that, with schools’ recent laser-like focus on reading and math, have often gone by the wayside during the regular school day. Even academics can be fun: the evening I visited Kelly Miller, the kids were preparing for a geography competition, and spirits were running high.

Can HA, or something like it, be the means to meeting Henderson’s goal of bringing the extended day concept to more schools? Certainly it would require some money: the cost per HA site is about $175,000 a year, with about three quarters of that amount coming from private funds. In the future, HA plans to ask each single-site school to contribute about $25,000. The organization has been receiving $25,000 annually per single-site school in Baltimore, but in the future it hopes to raise the amount to about $60,000, to cover roughly a third of the cost.

But considering that the school-run DCPS extended day programs cost, on average, $300,000, that actually looks like a bargain. And with no discernible progress on the teachers’ union contract, the partnership model might be the best way to go.

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Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools.