Longer school days for Chicago?

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 has said.

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 schools.

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 Vargas.

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 controversial.

“I think the school day is too short, our week is too short, our year is too short,” the Chicago native said in 2009.

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 consideration.

“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 it.

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 future.

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 union.

“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.

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