Los Angeles Unified discussing 200-day school year
October 2, 2013 | By Susan Frey | 11 Comments
Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, is discussing extending its academic year by 20 days, a $300 million proposal that would give Los Angeles the longest school year, at 200 days, of any large urban district in the nation.
Extending class time and the length of the school year is gaining increasing attention as educators seek new ways to improve student performance, and any extension would put Los Angeles at the forefront of the national effort. The potential benefits of a longer school year were outlined in the 1983 A Nation at Risk report, which ushered in the modern era of education reform. The report recommended that schools move to between 200 and 220 school days, but no state has come close to that number. Most, like LAUSD, offer a 180-day instructional year.
“If LAUSD does move forward with a plan to add significantly more time to their school calendar, the district will emerge as one of the national leaders in the movement to expand learning time,” said Jennifer Davis, cofounder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, a Boston-based nonprofit that promotes extended learning.
But the proposal faces formidable foes, including Superintendent John Deasy and the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.
Deasy wants to address the district’s structural deficit before considering additional costly proposals, and United Teachers Los Angeles is lobbying the district to use funds available under the new school finance system to rehire 549 educators who lost their permanent positions during the recession.
“Right now we still have schools where they have English and science classes with between 40 and 50 students in them,” said Warren Fletcher, president of the L.A. teachers union. Now that the district has survived the “budget hurricane,” he said, “We might want to make sure we have a roof before we talk about adding a den.”
Fletcher also noted that philosophically he is not opposed to an extended school year, but there has to be a plan in place about how those days are going to be used.
“There isn’t some sort of magic to adding three or five days – you have to have a structure,” he said. “The idea isn’t fully baked.”
Board member Mónica García submitted the resolution for a longer school year in May, when she was board president. Board members Tamar Galatzan and Nury Martinez also sponsored García’s resolution, which the board passed in June, asking the superintendent to examine the feasibility of the idea. The board’s make-up changed after a March election, and Martinez is no longer on the board; Galatzan, who remains on the board, has declined to comment on the proposal. Board president Richard Vladovic did not respond to requests for comment.
The original resolution called for the superintendent to prepare a report on the extended school year proposal and deliver it to the board by mid-October. However, the superintendent only prepared a cost analysis in a Sept. 10 report about all the spending proposals suggested by board members. The extended-year proposal will now be part of ongoing budget discussions, García said.
The resolution to extend the school year would cost about $15 million for each additional day, according to district estimates. García is proposing that the current 180-day year be extended by nine days in 2014-15 and an additional 11 days by 2015-16.
Davis and others, however, say it’s important that the district develop a specific plan for how the additional days will be used. Often, piloting the program at a few schools makes sense, she added.
“We recommend that districts be strategic and thoughtful and have a planning period to maximize the impact of the extended time,” Davis said. “The impact is strongest when that time is focused on supporting individual student learning needs and allowing time for teacher collaboration.”
‘More time on task’
The longer school year would put Los Angeles ahead of other urban districts, according to data from the National Center on Time & Learning.
Atlanta, Boston and Chicago public schools all have a 180-day school year, while Detroit schools meet for 174 days and Denver schools for 173 days. The District of Columbia has a 185-day year and Cincinnati has a 183-day year. However, many large urban districts have seven-hour school days, while Los Angeles Unified has an average day of a little more than six hours, which wouldn’t change under the proposal.
The money to pay for the extended year would come from funds generated from voter-approved Proposition 30 and the new school finance system, the Local Control Funding Formula, which directs additional funds to districts, such as Los Angeles, with high-needs students. In addition, under the waiver that Los Angeles and a coalition of other districts received from the federal No Child Left Behind law, funds formerly set aside for tutoring can be used for other purposes.
García said she floated her resolution as board members discussed other ways to spend the money, including reducing class sizes, adding more counselors and rehiring laid-off staff.
“In the thinking of what is possible, we have to include what it would take to give students more time on task,” García said, adding that a less expensive approach to extending learning time would be to use the four days now set aside for staff development as regular school days. “It’s part of ongoing conversations about how to get the district to move faster, to not just put back what was lost (during the recession), but to create a new culture and a focus.”
Traditional district schools are facing competition from KIPP charter schools, which have 1 ½ more hours per school day, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which recently increased its school year to 200 days, García said. KIPP has some of the best performing schools in the state, she noted.
Los Angeles Unified is not alone.
“Districts across the country are feeling the pressure of the charter school movement,” Davis said.
Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, which organizes East Los Angeles communities, supports the idea of an extended school year in the context of building community schools. Such schools provide support for students and their families beyond the classroom through on-campus counseling and health centers, internships and promotion of the arts.
“To be able to implement the vision fully, we have to be able to extend the school year and school day,” Brenes said. “We need more planning time for faculty so there is an alignment between instruction and what is happening outside the classroom so every student is well served and well tracked.”
Maria León, whose daughter, Genesis, is in ninth grade at Garfield High School on the Eastside, said through a translator that she supports a longer day as well as a longer year, particularly for students who need tutoring or counseling support.
“Over the years, I have seen thousands of students who are struggling who give up,” she said. “Others miraculously catch up and graduate. If there was extra support, perhaps a lot more could come back academically.”
Getting the most from a longer year
As Los Angeles wraps the extended-year proposal into budget discussions, one superintendent who has seen success in a longer year says focusing on the cost is the wrong approach.
“Once you set your priorities, you will find the resources to meet them,” said Jeffrey Smith, superintendent of Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix, which serves more than 2,700 students in grades K through 8 and has had a 200-day school year since 2009-10. Smith took over the failing district in 2008-09 and instituted a series of reforms, including extending the school year.
Smith’s district is an example of how to get the most from extended learning. The proportion of students who have passed state reading tests has gone from 51 percent in 2008-09 to 65 percent in 2012-13. Math achievement has also steadily increased since a new statewide math test was introduced in 2010-11.
Smith reorganized professional development so that it occurred during the regular school day, making prep time the same for all teachers in a subject area to allow for collaboration. While teachers from core subjects such as math or English are collaborating, students take art, music or physical education classes.
Smith also maximized the pre-testing calendar, starting school in late July instead of August so there were more days before the state tests in the first week of May. A long summer or even summer school – shutting school down and reopening it for a few weeks – is not an efficient use of building resources, Smith said. Students in his district have only a six-week summer vacation, reducing summer learning loss.
“We are now seeing tremendous gains,” Smith said, particularly for English as a Second Language students. He said that the percentage of English learners who no longer need special English language support almost doubled between 2008-09 and 2011-12, going from 20 percent to 39 percent.
Smith had the advantage of an Arizona law that provides 5 percent more funding to districts that extend the school year by 20 days. That additional funding plus a property tax increase allowed the district to not only extend the school year, but also give teachers a 9 percent raise.
Having a clear vision and producing positive results has attracted dedicated teachers and support from nonprofits and foundations, Smith said.
“What are we here for – to change kids’ lives, get them college and career ready,” he said. By extending the school year, “we have added an extra year of instruction to meet that goal.”
This report is one of a series of reports on expanded learning time supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation as part of of a multi-city reporting project by EdSource and EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
Sue Frey covers expanded learning time. Contact her.