When Nashville Classical kindergarteners are getting off of the bus, their peers across town have been home for hours. An eight-hour school day for kindergarten may sound excessive, but at this public charter school, that’s how long the school day needs to be.
“I think it’s important to think about all of the things you want to accomplish in a school day, and then make sure that you have the time to accomplish all of those things,” Charlie Friedman, Nashville Classical’s school director, says. “We didn’t start by saying we have to have an extended day, and we didn’t start by saying we have to end at 4:00 p.m.”
When Friedman built the schedule for his school, he knew he wanted to offer recess, physical education, three hours of literacy, hands-on science, and a foreign language every single day.
“Our students are learning Spanish while other kids in the community are walking home from school,” he says. “Once we had all of those things laid out, we built a day that was about an hour longer than the average school day.”
Extended school days, or extended learning time, have become ubiquitous among charter schools and lower-performing schools looking to improve academic achievement. The average school day in the United States varies from state to state, but most stays require approximately 180 days for the school year to be complete. Each state’s Department of Education determines its own minimum school day length and stipulations for fulfilling the 180 days. The way states add this time up can get complicated, but typically if schools or districts choose to add time to the legal minimum school day, the day would be considered extended. For most states, 180 days of school adds up to somewhere between approximately 900 and 1200 hours of instruction per year, which is actually relatively high on a global scale. Even Finland, whose test scores consistently top international rankings, doesn’t have compulsory schooling until age seven, and their school day is shorter than a typical American day.
Still, given the wide socioeconomic gaps and educational disparities across the United States, many schools, charter networks, and districts have turned to extended learning time as a pragmatic reform. States like Massachusetts have spearheaded pilot programs for longer school days and have seen strong results. In 2013, D.C. Public Schools implemented extended hours for eight of its struggling schools and saw some of its largest gains in math and reading since 2008.
Although many disadvantaged schools are considering a longer day, there are a lot of unanswered questions: How does this affect students? How can districts cover the increased costs? And perhaps most importantly, does this extra time in the classroom actually make low-income students more competitive with their peers?
The teachers I spoke with said extended school days can work, but only if the extra time is used effectively. If the hours at school seem wasted, students, families, and teachers don’t get invested—their buy-in is crucial.
Peter Smith* directs a Philadelphia high school that extends its day—but only by a half an hour for students. Hours run from 8:00 a.m. to 3:17 p.m. After school, teachers are required to stay for office hours from 3:17 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. While teachers are in school for an hour and 15 minutes longer than other teachers in the district, they actually teach less than they would in a traditional public school.