Eleven-year-old Naidelyne Diaz leans over her paper to shade in squares on a grid — she and her sixth-grade classmates are learning a new method to make multiplying fractions easier.
The Webster Elementary youngster is chatty with her partner as they carefully darken in their charts. Their teacher, Estela Coronado, makes the rounds, checking their work and answering questions.
If the lesson seems to click, the students may work on special accelerated lessons later that day. Struggling students might get extra time to polish their skills.
There is more time for one-on-one lessons here, and at nine other schools across Fresno Unified where classroom time has been extended by 30 minutes this school year.
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Longer days are old hat at Webster, where an extra half hour became the norm a few years back in hopes of stemming chronically low test scores. School officials say the tactic has worked. Now it’s become part of a larger strategy to give the most vulnerable youngsters a kick start in school.
In a district that long has struggled with truancy, high numbers of dropouts and low college-going rates, a turnaround has proven elusive. But district leaders have a new reason for hope. Impoverished cities like Fresno are getting plenty of new state dollars, money meant to help districts make meaningful progress.
In Fresno Unified, officials are pinning their hopes on longer school days.
“If you practice longer, you’re going to get better,” said Ed Gomes, administrator for leadership development and the point person on the extended day plan. “There’s common sense to it.”
Studies back up the theory. But the plan comes with a hefty price tag — at least $3.5 million this year alone — to pay for a 10% salary increase for each teacher involved. There is a human cost, too. Teachers say they’re tired — not an entirely unforeseen consequence, they say.
A new path
In one Lowell Elementary classroom, the third-graders’ hands pop up, fingers fluttering to get teacher Faye Bares’ attention. Xavier Timms, an 8-year-old in a red Sonic the Hedgehog T-shirt, is the first to catch her eye.
“In my opinion, I think amused means when you’re getting entertained, like when you’re going to the circus,” he says primly.
One by one, the students go through the words they’ve highlighted in one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Lion and the Mouse.” Language arts, and writing in particular, is getting special focus at Lowell this year.
The bell rings at 2:50 p.m. at this central Fresno school, 30 minutes later than last year. Principal Miguel Naranjo has worked here for eight years, enough time to realize students need to spend the extra minutes working on writing skills. Lowell kids have historically scored very poorly on the state’s standardized English test; in 2013, only 17% of third-graders earned a proficient or advanced score.
It’s just a few months into school, but Naranjo gets the sense that students already are improving.
“Surprisingly, it was a very smooth transition,” he said this month. “Kids have been working straight through. The teachers have been happy with the extra time they’ve gotten.”
He has no facts or figures to back up his gut feeling. But Naranjo hopes benchmark assessments in future years will confirm his hunch.
“Once the district assessments are scored, we’ll be able to see,” he said. “Our neighboring school is Anthony (Elementary). Very similar schools (but) they don’t have that extra half hour. How did we do against them?”
California has been slow to catch up with a national push to expand classroom time, said Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning education nonprofit.
“One of the challenges has been the terrible budget situation for so many years,” she said. More time costs money, and until recently, many California schools were struggling to stay in the black.
Davis is an ex-U.S. Department of Education administrator who has spent the past 15 years working on education issues in Massachusetts. She said charter schools are the original pioneers of an extended class day, with public districts in states like Massachusetts and Connecticut experimenting in recent years. Several studies of New York City charters have given credence to the method, including one from 2012 showing instruction time is one of the best predictors of academic success.
Being smart about the extra minutes is crucial, Davis said, like using the time for one-on-one tutoring. Teachers also need more time to plan lessons and collaborate with their peers, she said.
At Lowell and Webster, and the eight other Fresno schools using the extended day, teachers have 80 extra hours each year to work with their peers.
Naranjo said teachers have come in on Saturdays and spent 28 extra hours over the summer to team up on lesson plans. He has heard few complaints about the weekend work — or the extra minutes during the class day.
“Initially people were apprehensive,” he said. “But once we got into it, people are happy. They say the day still is not long enough.”
Fresno Unified officials began pitching a plan for longer school days around this time last year.
The promise of millions in extra state dollars for high-poverty districts, money that comes from a new state schools funding formula, was exciting for Fresno school officials. They were quick to develop spending plans.
The initial idea: lengthen the day by 30 minutes at 20 schools this year — and 20 more the next.
A look around the Fresno metro area shows neighboring districts already have longer days.
By district estimates, Fresno Unified elementary students get about 56,000 minutes of class time each year, 1,000 fewer minutes than Clovis Unified and 3,000 less than Central Unified.
The plan was subject to talks with the Fresno teachers union this past spring. It eventually was tapered down to 10 elementary schools this year, and 20 more next fall.
District administrator Gomes said the selected schools mostly serve students who are low-income, learning English or live in foster homes. Balderas, Burroughs, Easterby, Fremont, Jefferson, Lincoln, Norseman and Viking elementary schools also lengthened the day.
“Schools that definitely have need,” he added.
A labor of love
At Webster, there is a sense of pride among staff who have watched the school turn around from darker days.
Tucked around the corner from a Lewis Street Bulldog gang hangout, Webster’s story is one of struggle, stagnation and revival.
More than 60% of the students who go here come from homes without a steady income. Some have older siblings or relatives who are members of the gang.
When Principal Kelli Wilkins arrived a few years ago, she found the school coming unglued.
“Kids could not read,” she said. “There was no kind of organized system for helping kids learn.”
Webster’s history is laced with failure. Once named among the state’s 188 lowest-performing schools, the school underwent a major overhaul in 2010 that ended in more than a dozen teachers leaving and a slew of other changes, including longer class days and extra professional development for staff.
The school has since shed its negative reputation, Wilkins said. Webster’s score on the state’s academic yearly progress index skyrocketed from below 668 in 2010 to 811 in 2013. Tremendous growth, Wilkins said, on the yardstick that ranges from 200-1,000.
The school has become one of the district’s success stories.
But it wasn’t without cost. Wilkins said five teachers have left in the past two years, at least two of whom said they were burned out from long hours.
“I’m not going to lie and say it’s not hard work. It is. You have to be willing to accept that,” she said. “We’re in this for kids, improving education. Having that common vision makes the obstacles disappear.”
Sixth-grade teacher Coronado, who has taught 28 years at Webster, said the extra planning time and classroom minutes are a gift for students.
“Teachers are overworked, that’s a given. But when you begin to strategically organize your time, effort and abilities, the extra hours you spend collaborating are a great payoff,” she said.
Lowell teacher Bares certainly hopes so. She said teachers appreciate the extra pay, from more than $4,000 to nearly $8,000 annually, “but there are some teachers that are tired.”
“It’s difficult to put in that extra time after a long day,” she said.