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‘Pioneer schools’ give peek at longer day

Chicago Public Schools principal Nancy Hanks prepares three binders thwill be given each teacher outlining Rahm Emanuel's signature educatipush longer

Chicago Public Schools principal Nancy Hanks prepares three binders that will be given to each teacher outlining Rahm Emanuel's signature education push, the longer school day, which begins its second phase on Monday when schools resume. | Dom Najolia~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 11, 2012 1:42PM

On Monday, when the bell rings at Chicago’s year-round public schools to launch the new year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s signature plan for a longer day becomes a reality.

More than 50 schools got a head start, opting in the past year to take the mayor up on an offer to add more time in exchange for more school money ­­ — up to $150,000 for the school as well as teacher stipends.

The Chicago Sun-Times looked at the 13 participating elementary schools that were not charter schools to get an idea of what the typical school can expect.

Some principals at the so-called “pioneer schools” said they used the extra school time on remediation and math, extra reading and dance. They bolstered flagging students with an afternoon snack and wooed parents with promises of innovation.

But the early launch schools showed mixed results in testing. Two of the 13 had double-digit gains in state achievement test scores, most showed some improvement, but two lost ground, according to preliminary data.

And not all improving schools could credit the longer day for their better test scores. At least 14 other schools in the city saw double-digit improvement while still on a nearly six-hour schedule that the mayor has ended.

But on average, the schools that volunteered for the early launch of the longer day boosted test scores by 2.5 percentage points, Chicago Public Schools data showed.

Now they have to realign their schedules to conform to the longer day, which will keep elementary school children in school for seven hours, more than an hour more than last year, according to a tentative contract between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Nancy Hanks, principal at Genevieve Melody Elementary School, a neighborhood school in the West Garfield Park community, said: “People underestimate how much there is to do in a school day and how much you can offer students. You can’t really innovate the way you want if you don’t have access to that time. You make choices, cutting from one area, cutting from another.”

Small-group reading and math enrichment pushed up Melody’s test scores.

“Math gains were double digits,” Hanks said. “It’s the area where we focused more time. It makes us think, ‘If we had started in September, would we have seen even more (gains)?’ ”

Within the parent groups that oppose a longer school day, concerns arose about families losing time together after school, extra time spent on test prep instead of quality learning and children wearing out.

“Initially, several of the parents were concerned,” said Maria McManus, principal of STEM Magnet Academy in University Village. “I didn’t notice that the kids were drained. Maybe once they got home? During the school year, we didn’t notice it at all.”

William H. Brown Elementary School bulked up on arts education with the extended school day.

“Everyone K through 8 received arts enrichment,” Principal Kenya Sadler said. “We were able to provide ballet to primary students, African dance to older students.”

Each child in grades three through eight also participated in a semester of ballroom dance, Sadler said. The school, which is near the United Center, with the help of community partners such as the Bulls, offered instruction in African art and spoken word and drama.

“Our kids lack a lot of prior knowledge because they haven’t been exposed to a lot of things outside of the school and the core curriculum,” Sadler said. “We’re hoping that by bringing in enrichment components, we could build their academic language to learn.”

But Brown had the greatest losses in test scores among the pioneer schools, according to a Sun-Times analysis of preliminary 2011-12 data.

Come Monday morning, the bell will ring at Melody Elementary at 7:45 a.m., and about 300 students are expected in class. They’ll be dismissed at 2:45 p.m., according to the new schedule, but most will stick around for activities and enrichment at school rather than doing outside sports and lessons.

“We had kids in the building until 5, 5:30 every day anyway,” Hanks said. “Most of the kids, they’re with us anyway.”

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