By Mark E. Vogler
LAWRENCE — Some of the city's poorest performing schools could be prime candidates for an extended school day that could add 300 more hours to the academic year.
No decision has been made yet on expanded learning time for any of more than 13,000 students at the Lawrence Public Schools. But state-appointed superintendent/receiver Jeffrey C. Riley — who produced nationally acclaimed results with 300 hours added to the school day while principal of the Clarence Edwards Middle School in Boston several years ago — has the power to design a similar class schedule for the Lawrence Public Schools.
Riley said he's considering additional classroom time for several of the city's 28 schools, but hasn't decided how many students will be spending more hours on their studies or what the format will be.
"People think more time in itself is going to solve the problem," Riley said. "But it's more time used well and it really has to be the thoughtful use of time. I don't think every school needs to have a longer day. But with the extra time, some schools can make up a lot of ground quickly with achievement and academic gaps."
The Edwards School, with Riley as its principal, was one of the first Massachusetts public schools participating in the Expanded Learning Time Initiative, a competitive grant program which allowed schools to expand their school days. The state awarded each school $1,300 per pupil per year to redesign the school year.
"Our kids would go to class until 4:30 every day while the typical Boston school got dismissed at 1:40," Riley recalled.
The increased school day was a pivotal part of a remarkable turnaround that saw a school that was the lowest-performing middle school in the city become the highest performing. In addition to the dramatic improvement in student achievement, the Edwards School changed from a place that was destined for closure because of poor enrollment into the city's most popular middle school — so popular, it has a waiting list.
"It's definitely gone from the most under-chosen to the most-chosen school in Boston," Riley said.
Getting the same grant money to support expansion of the academic year in Lawrence to 300 additional hours for the city's lowest performing schools could take some time. Meanwhile, Riley said he is considering a number of other options that proved successful for him in Boston.
"What you could see me do is add days to the calendar, use (accelerated) academies to target certain kids over the February and April vacations to really try to improve performance and try to marry our best teachers with our neediest kids during those vacation periods," Riley said.
Part of Riley's strategy to improve academic achievement includes increasing extracurricular activities like debating, musical events, theatre and athletics.
"I think we've cut back on a lot of extracurricular activities that hook kids and that's unfortunate," Riley said. "Those activities can be just as important to kids coming up as the straight academics. So, we want to try to increase activities for those kids."
Riley said he also plans to reach out to foundations for private funds that could help pay for more extracurricular activities for students.
"We need to let people know there's an opportunity here in Lawrence to support the schools and hopefully people will buy in," said Riley, who has already begun reaching out to foundations for possible partnerships.
"That's a hard sell. But, we want people to feel like we got momentum started in Lawrence and we can make things happen for kids. Right now, there's zero foundation dollars directed at the Lawrence public schools. We need to change that. So, we look forward to working with foundations," he said.
Riley has just finished his first month of a three-and-a-half year contract, but said the turnaround could realistically take up to five years.
"It could be more," Riley said. "We're going to be in Lawrence until the job is done. I'm not interested in a short-term situation. We're going to be in Lawrence until we really feel comfortable with the improvements we made and they're long-lasting and embedded in the fabric of the school system."
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