Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson wants longer day at some schools

The Fresno BeeOctober 26, 2013 

Fresno Unified officials are pitching a plan to lengthen the school day next year, an idea that's getting flak from teachers union representatives who say educators could get burned out.

Up to 20 schools would add an extra 30 minutes of daily class time starting next fall, and another 20 schools would lengthen their days the following year. The proposal -- its fate is subject to talks with the teachers union -- would also tack on 10 more professional development days for teachers.

Superintendent Michael Hanson says he's pushing the plan so kids have more time to learn. The additional minutes are equivalent to 18 more days each year -- nearly 130 extra days, or more than half a school year by the time kids finish sixth grade.

Right now, he said, Fresno Unified students get fewer minutes each year than nearby districts. First- through sixth-graders get almost 56,000 minutes in class each year. At Clovis Unified, spokeswoman Kelly Avants said, first- through sixth-graders get more than 57,000 minutes. And at Central Unified, Superintendent Mike Berg said, kids in those grades get more than 59,000 minutes each year.

"Our whole theory is more time with an effective teacher proves results for students," Hanson said. "We know it works."

The district hasn't yet said which schools would have longer days, but Hanson said he wants to start with elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods.

The plan sets aside $10 million over the next two years to pay for teachers' extra time. The money comes from a new state funding category, Local Control Funding Formula, which is supposed to be spent on services for English learners and impoverished students.

As proof the plan could boost student academic achievement, district officials point to improved academics and attendance numbers at three once-failing schools.

Those schools -- Yosemite Middle, Carver Academy and Webster Elementary -- lengthened the school day and made other changes in 2010. The moves were drastic: teachers were reassigned to other schools, principals were replaced and daily lesson plans were changed.

"It is hard work and it is stressful and it is a lot for teachers to undertake," said Kelli Wilkins, Webster's principal. "However, the benefits to kids fuel (teachers') fire."

Yosemite special education teacher Suzanne Fischer said classes are now around an hour long, up from about 45 to 50 minutes before the overhaul. Longer classes give students more time to complete assignments, she said.

"There's more quality instruction," she said. "Even just the very beginning of class takes two to three minutes," she said, time she didn't have to catch up with students or explain assignments before the overhaul took effect.

Yosemite's scores on the state's Academic Performance Index -- which measures how well students do on standardized tests -- have skyrocketed by 100 points since the restructuring, from 598 to 700 between 2011 and 2013, said principal Ed Gomes. He said attendance is also up and students are participating more in music and athletics programs.

It's unclear whether that's due to the longer school day, however.

Gomes said it's tough to measure what caused the turn-around, but he credits hard work and committed teachers as the likely catalysts.

But not everyone is convinced more classroom minutes are the sole reason for academic success.

Central Unified has longer school days, but Berg said good teachers, student engagement and rigorous lesson plans lead to success.

"The issue is not the length of the day as much as it is the quality of instruction," he said.

Fresno Teachers Association leaders are wary of the day-lengthening plan. They say their members are already overworked and hope to block the proposal during ongoing contract negotiations.

FTA President Eva Ruiz said that asking teachers -- who she said already spend hours after school grading and planning -- to teach longer classes is simply too much. She suggested shrinking class sizes, which she argues will be a better way to help students succeed.

"If the district is willing to put in money for 30 extra minutes, why aren't they willing to lower class sizes?" she said.

That's under consideration, at least for some grade levels in Fresno Unified. To align with new state standards, the district is supporting a plan to cut class sizes to 25 students in kindergarten through third grade.

The disagreement between the union and district officials is just the latest point of friction between the sides that are trying to hash out a new employment contract.

Hanson unveiled a package deal this month that offers a 6.5% salary increase over the next three years, ties teacher evaluations more closely to student achievement and gives administrators more leverage to discipline employees.

The union immediately slammed the proposal, calling the salary increase "insulting" and saying teachers could be unfairly punished by changes to the evaluation process.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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