Gov. Eliot Spitzer, in his first State of the State address, said: We know that more time in the classroom in the form of longer school days, a longer school year and after-school programs ` also makes a difference.`
It sounds logical, but is following through as easy as it sounds?
Absent a statewide teachers’ contract like Hawaii has, asking teachers to work more hours would require each of the 732 school districts to renegotiate more expensive contracts with their educators, which may or may not be financially feasible to some districts that are already cash-strapped.
`While there have been known instances in the Western world of being able to negotiate things into a contract without having to pay for them, they are exceedingly rare,` said Dave Ernst, a spokesman for the state School Boards Association. `And it is reasonable to expect the individual bargaining units, if you ask them to work longer hours or ask them to work more days, to come back and request additional funds. It is the additional funds that is the difficult part.`
As it stands now, districts can hold classes for as many days as they want in any given school year, but they will only get state aid — the lifeblood of many districts — for a maximum of 181 days a year.
Districts can also say how long to keep children in school per day. A survey by the School Boards Association last year found the average time a high school teacher was in school is seven hours and seven minutes. Their days ranged in length from five hours and 30 minutes to eight hours, according to the survey. According to the National Education Association, teachers work an average of 50 hours a week when out-of-classroom work is considered.
New York State United Teachers President Richard C. Iannuzzi said he is open to the possibility of lengthening the school day and/or year, but said quality time is more important than the quantity of time students spend in school.
`Maximizing the instructional time a teacher spends with students during the day should be looked at first before you look at the length of the day or the length of the year,` said the president of the union, which counts 575,000 members, the state’s largest.
`Teachers are trained professionals whose role in the classroom is to teach, and too much time is spent on paperwork and supervising students in non-instructional roles,` said Iannuzzi.
Iannuzzi also cited the additional money it would cost to extend school time on top of teachers’ salaries. For example, if the school year extends into the summer, the cost of air conditioning should be factored in. Other variables to be considered include the impact it would have on parents and a student’s extracurricular activities such as athletics.
`We are absolutely open to discussing these issues but it is not as simple as adding 45 minutes to a school day or five or 10 days to a school year,` he said. `How you add time, what you do with the time and what the purpose of adding the time is has to be examined before we say it is a good idea or a bad idea.`
Ernst said other cultural factors come into play if a district modifies the school day or year, including the time-honored tradition of local businesses hiring high schoolers as cheap summer help.
`Society as a whole has some interest and wants and should have an input, not just the educators or the policy makers,` he said.
It is no secret some districts produce better students than others, and not all districts need to lengthen the school day or year to better student achievement. The districts that do, however, are typically most hard-pressed to afford it. One possibility, Ernst has suggested, is to offer a pot of state aid to those districts that do opt for longer days and/or a longer year to help offset the burden of local taxpayers.
`It is a situation where school districts that believe they need it can be able to afford it, but not every school district needs it,` he said. `Those where kids are coming from homes where they get a lot of parental reinforcement and come to school ready to learn — the length of the current school day and year is sufficient.`
Sidebar: LOCAL PARENTS SKEPTICAL OF LONGER DAYS
By JAMIE D. GILKEY, Contributing Writer
Just imagine a school year starting in late August and running right up to the Fourth of July holiday, or a full day of kindergarten that would mean hundreds of extra hours in the classroom for the area’s youngest students.
Those are just some of the possibilities facing state policymakers as they grapple with improving New York’s educational system, and local parents are giving the options a mixed review.
Concerned about the impact a longer school day could have on high school students who are already stocking up on extra-curricular activities so they can impress admissions offices at hotly competitive colleges, a onetime co-president of a Bethlehem school district Parent-Teacher Association said a longer day could pose problems for those in higher grade levels.
`I have two kids in high school and one in middle school,` said Patty Wukitsch, formerly with the parent group at Clarksville Elementary. `I think that the bus for the high school is already arriving at 6:35 a.m. If they were to extend the school day another hour, that would push back all the start times for the extra-curricular activities and make the day extremely long.
`I could see extending the school year by about two weeks, have it end around the Fourth of July,` she added. `That would put less pressure on the kids because they would have more time to cover the material, but I can’t see going to a longer school day.`
Jennifer Johnson, a Saratoga County woman who is co-president of the Ballston Spa Middle School PTA, also expressed concern about the effect additional classroom hours would have on students who are already coming home worn out after school.
`I definitely don’t support a longer school day,` Johnson said. `We push them so hard as it is, and I know they’re already exhausted when they come home at the end of the day.
`As for a longer school year, right now they are already learning things in sixth grade that I was taught in high school,` said Johnson. `I’m not sure whether a longer year is a good thing or not, but a lot of teachers believe it would be much more beneficial for students, and it may be the way to go as we face competition from other countries around the world.`
While longer hours may pose added difficulties for those preparing for college or involved in extracurricular activities, the youngest public school students could benefit tremendously, according to an activist mother in Niskayuna.
`I’m a real advocate for full-day kindergarten,` said Kelly Sweeney, co-president of the Birchwood Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization.
`We have so many kids who are coming from daycare where they get a full day of activities and stimulation, then they are put in a three hour kindergarten,` Sweeney said. `I am really supportive of the Niskayuna school district, it is such a progressive and fantastic place. But I think we really are going to have to take a look at this in the future.`