In an era when 100 school districts in 17 states
have reduced instructional time by a whole day each week to balance
budgets battered by the recession, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has
done the unthinkable: He's vowed to lengthen the school day and
school year for Chicago Public Schools' 435,000 students in 600
schools in time for the start of the 2012-13 school year.
"I've let it be known that you cannot have a city compete
when you have the shortest school day and school year in the
country of any major city. Having a longer day is important," he
As examples, President Barack Obama's former White House
chief of staff points to cities like New York, Boston and Houston,
where instructional time adds between two and four years to
students' educations, as well as Chicago's charter
But how Emanuel's ambitious plan will be achieved and how
the calendar will look is anyone's guess. He's been long on
examples and short on specifics.
"We haven't been able to devote a great deal of time yet
to hammering out the details," says CPS spokeswoman Ana
State law requires elementary students to spend 308
minutes, or an average of 5.1 hours a day for 170 days, in school.
High school students must spend 336 minutes, or an average of 5.6
hours a day for 170 days, in school.
At 186 days, Kansas has the longest school year in the
nation for grades K-11, and at 160, Colorado has the shortest. Most
states average about 180 school days.
But even five-day school weeks spread over 180-day school
years doesn't satisfy U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a
former chief executive officer for CPS, whose record there remains
"I think the school day is too short, our week is too
short, our year is too short," the Chicago native said in
Emanuel managed to score an early victory when the
Illinois General Assembly passed an education reform bill
addressing a longer school day and school year.
Will parents agree?
On the surface, it appears parents would be supportive of
a longer school day and school year. But there is talk in some
quarters that Emanuel was surprised that the parent support he
expected has yet to materialize.
"I think all those decisions are major decisions for
families and communities," says Debra Strauss, past president of
the Illinois Parent Teacher Association, who now serves on the
national PTA board.
She says what Emanuel really needs to do for his increased
instructional time initiative to be successful is to conduct
surveys with parents and host a series of community meetings and
hearings throughout the district. That allows parents to be heard
and feel their concerns are being taken into
"That's how parents get buy-in so they feel they
are a part of the process," she says. "You are way more supportive
of the process if you understand it."
CPS officials admit, with the transitions of the mayor,
his appointed board and the district's new CEO Jean-Claude Brizard,
details have yet to be hammered out. These include human resource
costs, how additional time would be spent and whether the
infrastructure of the district, including the conditions of the
buildings, could support more time in the classroom.
Kathy Cowan, of the National Association of School
Psychologists, says given the current number of hours and days
spent in class, CPS likely has room for growth.
"Kids-particularly kids at risk-need more school time,
rather than less," she says.
Though she has no specific recommendations on how the time
is used, Cowan urges CPS officials to balance instructional time
with breaks. In an era when recess is shortened in favor of
increased instructional time, she notes, there can be a diminishing
return because of student fatigue.
More days, more pay
Another potential barrier to Emanuel's attempts to
lengthen the school day and school year is what appears to be
shaping up as a contentious relationship with the Chicago Teachers
Union. Though most teachers agree that children need more time in
the classroom, the mayor appears unwilling to pay for
The CPS Board of Education in June voted unanimously to
rescind a 4 percent pay increase on teachers' salaries, saving the
financially strapped district $100 million. But those savings,
board members said, don't mean layoffs aren't in the district's
Officials of the Chicago Teachers Union, representing
30,000 teachers and support staff, accuse Emanuel and Brizard of
negotiating through the press rather than through the
"Brizard and Emanuel are now proposing half-baked ideas in
the press rather than sitting down with the people who spend their
time in the classroom to come up with reasonable solutions," says
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey.
Rebecca R. Bibbs is a freelance writer living in Oak Park.
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