It’s a July morning at 6:45 a.m. and the temperature is starting to climb across the city. Most schoolchildren would expect to have at least a few more weeks of summer. But Quincy Lindsey, a fifth grader at New Orleans’ ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, is trying to wake up for his first day of school.
His mother, Calanthia Lindsey, tries to keep Quincy on pace to make it to school by 7:15 a.m., reminding him not to use his pencils as drum sticks and to tuck in his shirt.
ReNEW is one of hundreds of schools nationwide that are adding time to the school year: lengthening school days, requiring Saturday classes, or shortening summer. Calanthia Lindsey hopes more time in the classroom helps Quincy stay motivated.
“You know, when things get really complicated for him, high school, college,” she said. “You got your own schedule. You ain’t got mama standing over you saying, ‘Do your homework.’ He’s gonna want to do it because he’s already set in the mindset early.”
Nationally, the number of schools adding hours or days jumped 53 percent since 2009, according to a 2012 report from the National Center on Time and Learning in Boston. New Orleans ranked in the top five cities in the nation for schools extending their day or academic year. The report identified 41 New Orleans schools with expanded time.
The schools have various reasons for adding time. Some cite global competitiveness — pointing to the long day and year at many schools in Asia. Others say they want to accommodate the schedules of working families. In addition, charter schools, whose teachers are not usually unionized, have more flexibility in setting calendars and work hours.
But the most common reason school leaders mention is “summer learning loss,” when students forget much of what they’ve learned over vacation.
Gina Warner, executive director of the National After School Association, says there’s a reason the movement has been concentrated in low-income communities with poor academic results — places like New Orleans.
“I think it’s definitely the pressure we see to close the achievement gap and the additional pressure put on schools to have increased test scores,” she said.
Warner thinks more time at school is fine, as long as schools or community partners are offering the students something different: like art or music classes that have been squeezed out of the traditional school day. “If more time is just more of the same, then that’s a problem,” she said.
But Warner worries about why longer school days and years are only being touted as the solution for some children.
“Are we comfortable with a solution that works for other people’s kids and a solution we wouldn’t want for our own?” she said. “You don’t hear middle income and upper middle income parents talking about expanded day. They want that afternoon, those weekends, those summers for sports activities, for soccer games, for ballet lessons, for foreign language instruction, for travel.”
‘Just get it done’
Quincy Lindsey was a little hesitant when he learned he would be transferring to a school with a shorter summer. “I was having a lot of fun and I was like, ‘Ahhh, I gotta go to school?’”
But he resigned himself to the early start. “You know how you see basketball players on the court?” he said. “Gotta get the job done. So that’s what I have to do.”
Quincy is one of just six students who showed up at his homeroom on the first day July 22. Some families did not realize just how early the school year now starts.
Gary Robichaux, executive director of ReNEW, says his network of charter schools has lost a few families because of the extended calendar, but only a few. The network does have longer than usual breaks spread throughout the school year.
“I’m not sure why we’ve had this tradition of having 12 weeks off in the summer,” Robichaux said. “I see more and more cities buying into this and doing it. It is a little more expensive to do, but it’s worth the investment.”
In ReNEW’s case the additional time costs about a half million per school, which comes out of various grants. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been a big supporter of expanded learning time. During a 2010 appearance at the National Press Club, he said that ideally schools would be open “12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, 11 to 12 months of the year.”
Quincy isn’t the only student a bit hesitant to embrace a longer school year. Eleven-year-old A’Lyric Thomas, a sixth grader at Renew, was unsure whether a six-week break would be enough.
“I was worried that I wouldn’t have time to do what I wanted to do, and that I would be too focused on school,” she said.
A’Lyric sees one silver lining to a quicker summer, though. “It get cut short sometimes, but it also gives me a limit so I don’t get addicted to the Internet or anything,” she said.
A’Lyric’s younger brother, Rapheal, likes his teachers and friends at ReNEW. But the nine-year-old still has one big concern about a longer school year. Summer is when Rapheal gets to spend the most time with his father, who works long hours to support his family. Once the school year is in full swing, Rapheal doesn’t see as much of his father as he would like.
“I can’t see my family at school, like my Daddy,” he said. “Every time we come home he be asleep because he got to get his rest to go back to work so we will have food on the table and a place to sleep.”
The close-knit Thomas family makes the most of its limited time together: playing checkers, baseball, and other games. And their father believes that the more time his kids spend in school, the better.
“Watching them come home with new ideas and looking at things from a different perspective, that’s what they get from the school experience,” he said. “That would be the pro for me. And that’s the most important thing.”
The jury’s still out on whether more time adds up to more learning. A 2012 report by the nonprofit research center Child Trends found most schools that added time showed academic growth. Yet it was impossible to attribute the improvement directly to more time in school. And the report concluded that when it comes to education, more time will never compensate for bad teaching.
WWNO’s Mallory Falk contributed material to this report.
This report is a collaboration between the Hechinger Institute and WWNO. Support for WWNO's Local News Initiative comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.