Education

Is a longer school day the answer to better math and reading scores? Fresno Unified says yes

In this 2014 file photo, Jefferson Elementary teachers aide Amparo Espinoza works with 4-year-olds in forming letters from pieces of wood in their transitional kindergarten class. The class gives children an extra boost in learning readiness. More recently, the Fresno Unified school became one of the first designated schools in the district. Principal Kali Isom-Moore said it’s not just the additional instructional time that happens at a designated school, but the flexibility and collaborative nature of the program that made a difference.
In this 2014 file photo, Jefferson Elementary teachers aide Amparo Espinoza works with 4-year-olds in forming letters from pieces of wood in their transitional kindergarten class. The class gives children an extra boost in learning readiness. More recently, the Fresno Unified school became one of the first designated schools in the district. Principal Kali Isom-Moore said it’s not just the additional instructional time that happens at a designated school, but the flexibility and collaborative nature of the program that made a difference. Fresno Bee file

A study released this week recognized some Fresno Unified schools for improving math and reading scores for low-income students by adding time to the school day.

Called designated schools, the 40 elementary schools mentioned have an additional 30 minutes of instructional time every day, as well as extra development time for teachers, which the study credits with gains in test scores that are several points above that of non-designated schools.

About designated schools

Ed Gomes, Fresno Unified’s superintendent of curriculum, said the district first started the designated schools program with 10 high-need, low-performing schools in the 2013-14 school year after reports showed how far behind socioeconomically disadvantaged students had fallen. He said he believes Fresno Unified is one of the first districts in the state to adopt the model.

“People look for the silver bullet. If you’re looking for a quick fix, this isn’t it,” Gomes said. “It’s a lot of hard work on the teachers’ part, and it’s an investment.”

The study by Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts and San Francisco that says it focuses on helping urban schools, found that among low-income students, designated schools showed a 9-point increase in math scores compared to a 5-point increase at non-designated schools from 2017 to 2018. For English and language arts, however, the difference in gains was less than half a percentage point, the study found.

State data shows that while some designated schools had double-digit increases in scores for certain grade levels, other schools in the program dropped by similar amounts from 2017-18, even when comparing data from the same group of students over two years. On average, the difference in gains for designated schools compared to non-designated schools is in the range of 1-2 points.

Math was a common focus for the first 10 schools to be designated, Gomes said, and schools that have been part of the program from the beginning show slightly higher gains than those that were added later.

Parents love the extra time spent at school, Gomes said, citing community surveys. He added that he believes the flexible nature of the program is also beneficial to teachers, as kindergarten teachers can choose to use their time differently than sixth-grade teachers.

“If we find something else that’s better, I’m all ears,” Gomes said. “If the data says there’s something better, we should try it, but until then, we shouldn’t throw away something that’s working.”

Jefferson Elementary

At Jefferson Elementary, one of the first designated schools, Principal Kali Isom-Moore said it’s not just the additional instructional time, but the flexibility and collaborative nature of the program that made a difference.

“There’s only so much time in a day, and we were trying to teach integers, but the kids didn’t know place value,” Isom-Moore said. “We needed time outside of that to build skills where there was a deficit.”

The additional instructional time was added in throughout the day and could be spent on guided reading in small groups with a teacher, while advanced students were given time to work on projects. Meanwhile, teachers met with instructional coaches and consultants during the extra 80 professional development hours.

After its first year as a designated school, Jefferson improved reading scores by 12 points. Last year, the school gained 4 points, a slowdown that Isom-Moore attributes in part to the nature of the test that becomes more rigorous as the kids progress. The school aims to have 50 percent of students proficient this year.

Isom-Moore said Jefferson teachers were at first somewhat apprehensive about the additional instructional time, as they were already putting in extra hours as part of their regular teaching duties. But voting on how to schedule the hours, plus the extra 10 percent pay bump, helped ease their worries, Isom-Moore said.

“Seeing the scores go up, too, that was motivation,” Isom-Moore said.

Excitement was in the air, and on the ground, for students at Jefferson Elementary School, for the long anticipated “Shoe Day,” when Shoes That Fit, visited school and provided 500 pairs of new athletic shoes.

Teachers respond

The emphasis on extra math and reading work can mean that there’s less time for other subjects like history and science. But the trade-off is that students are able to take elective classes once they reach middle school, Gomes said, rather than remedial math and reading classes.

The real issue with the program is that it often doesn’t function as described, according to Fresno Teachers Association president Manuel Bonilla. Though teachers are promised a flexible use of their additional time, it’s eaten up instead by data analysis, or it’s dictated to them by higher-ups, Bonilla said.

The increase in test scores also works out to several million dollars spent for each percentage point. And if that’s what’s necessary, Bonilla said, it raises the question of why the district has struggled to find the money to reduce class sizes – an approach that has been linked to higher test scores in early elementary grades.

“There’s a huge disconnect between downtown (the district office) and the classroom,” Bonilla said. “If we’re going to say this model is the thing, then implement it the way you say you are, and be clear in how we are determining success.”

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Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

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