"If anything, we need a shorter day," the Consentino Middle School student said. "I play several sports including basketball and soccer that start at 5 (p.m.). I barely have enough time to eat and do my homework now. It would be too stressful. No one wants a longer day."
Or so Alex says.
His classmates, Meghan Wren, 13, and Kayla Yameen, 14, are also leery of the idea, but they see the potential benefits, too.
Kayla wants to start learning a foreign language - Italian, Spanish or French would suit her - before she gets to high school. The city's middle schools, which have been hit hard by years of spending cuts, stopped offering foreign languages five years ago. Meghan enjoys science and says a longer day could give students the opportunity to do more interesting laboratory experiments.
"I play softball, basketball and soccer, and I wouldn't want a longer day to interfere with that," she said. "But if there were some fun activities, that would be better than all work, and I think kids could handle it better."
Consentino and Whittier middle schools are among about 75 Massachusetts schools in dozens of districts planning to lengthen their academic day within the next two years. Eighteen have already done so, fueled with $1,300 per student in state cash.
Currently, school lets out at Consentino and Whittier at 2:45 p.m.
The first extended-day programs began two years ago, aimed at giving students in urban, mostly low-income and low-performing districts a heavier dose of reading, writing, math and science. Most extended learning programs also give students a chance to participate in more so-called enrichment activities, such as art, music and sports. More and more, those types of activities are being trimmed from traditional school days due to budget cuts and MCAS-dominated curricula heavy with core subjects.
Although students' MCAS performance at Consentino and Whittier improved slightly this year, the scores remain below the state average in both math and English. Consentino is on a list of underperforming schools in Massachusetts that are being watched closely by state education officials.
The goals of longer days are to improve students' scores on the state's MCAS test and ultimately to help them compete for college admissions and then jobs with students in other parts of the world who are spending more time in the classroom, Superintendent Raleigh Buchanan said. The United States lags well behind most European and Asian countries in hours students spend in the classroom as well as in mathematics achievement.
"Spending more time in the classroom is an obvious response for schools and districts seeking to improve student achievement," Buchanan said. "In Haverhill, we're constantly saddled with money problems and budget cuts, so we have to get creative and look for outside financial help if we want change. And if you want extra money from the state, they want to see initiative and districts that are willing to work a little harder and try new things."
The two Haverhill middle schools have received $15,000 each to study and plan for an extended day. The goal is for each school to extend its day by about two hours by the start of the 2009-2010 school year, Buchanan said.
The planning is in its infancy, however, he said. Implementation requires approval first from the teachers union, then the School Committee, then the state Department of Education. But before any of that can happen, parents and teachers must get behind the idea and craft a specific plan for their school.
"We're talking about turning the school schedule into a blank sheet of paper and starting over, with input from teachers and parents," said Consentino guidance counselor Bernard McCann, who is leading the effort at his school. "It's scary for some, but exciting for others."
McCann said the initial goal was to be ready for the start of next school year, but that teachers wanted more time to consider the idea and tailor a plan. McCann said a survey last year of Consentino parents found 60 percent support a longer day, 17 percent are totally against it and 23 percent wanted more information.
"With the right menu and balance, I think we could do it for the year after next," Consentino Principal James Scully said, "but it isn't going to be an easy sell. There are lot of logistics to consider. And a lot of people just don't like change."
To receive state funding, a school must extend the time students spend in school by 300 hours a year, on top of the current 180 six-hour days. Schools may meet the criteria by lengthening the school day or the school year, or a combination of both. Longer days are much more popular and a far easier sell to parents and teachers, local and state official say.
"Initially I wanted to look at a longer year, but summer is sacred to people," Buchanan said. "There was no support here for a longer year."
Mass 2020, an educational nonprofit group founded in 2000 by millionaire businessman and former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Chris Gabrielli and Haverhill native Jennifer Davis, is leading the extended learning initiative with the Department of Education. Davis recently attended a meeting of the Haverhill School Committee to talk about the effort. She reported that the first studies on the impact of longer school days show improved student MCAS scores in math, English and science in all grade levels.
"There's not a lot of research on this yet, but the early results are promising," Davis said.
Although Massachusetts is the first state to fund longer school days in multiple districts, many other states are considering similar initiatives. Pending federal legislation by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would provide more money to state and school districts to implement longer school days and years.
How it works
Add at least 300 hours for all students to the current academic year of 180 six-hour days. This can be done by lengthening the school year, the school day or a combination of both.
Increase time for core academics such as reading, writing, math and English.
Provide activities like art, music and sports. Participating schools offer activities like swimming, weight-training, cheerleading, woodworking and cooking.
More teacher planning and training.
Once approved by state, schools get $1,300 per student per year, for at least five years.
The international view
Days per year spent in the classroom by public school students
Russian Federation: 195
United States: 180
Source: Mass 2020, an educational nonprofit group
Who's doing it
Massachusetts districts that have adopted longer days in some schools
Boston, Cambridge, Chicopee, Fall River, Fitchburg, Malden, Greenfield, Worcester
Massachusetts districts that may start or add schools with longer days in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010
Haverhill, Amherst-Pelham, Andover, Athol-Royalston, Barnstable, Brockton, Central Berkshire Regional, Chelsea, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Gardner, Greenfield, Leominster, Lynn, Malden, Mashpee, Middleborough, North Middlesex Regional, Norwood, Pittsfield, Revere, Sandwich, Somerville, Southville, Taunton, Waltham, Wareham, Webster, Westfield, Winthrop, Worcester