Longer School Year?

Monday, January 14, 2013

An experiment encouraged by Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been announced: five states will add 300 hours to their school year. He believes teachers and students need more time to prepare for success in competing in the world of the 21stcentury. He is backed by those who observe that too much knowledge is lost during the summer break. Opponents say kids need respite from school, and time with their families. Camps and hotels worry about their economic outlook if vacation time is cut short. (I suspect shopping malls also object.) Backing both a longer school day and year-round school are parents who work. They struggle to find and finance activities for kids in the summer weeks, as well as to get them from place to place. It’s worrying to have several hours between when students are dismissed and the end of the work day. Affordable after-school programs are always underfunded. Transportation arrangements are spotty, and adding pollution and causing chaos on the streets between 2 and 6 PM.

With so many brainy people constantly reforming education – so they say – why haven’t they figured out that kids no longer have to leave school to help bring in the hay? (Excuse me, some do, by working at McDonald’s.)

One of many flaws in this debate is the assumption that school is where kids learn what they have to learn. This is no longer true, of course. Kids learn wherever they are. This does not, however, justify turning them out onto the streets at 2:15 in the afternoon.  Or get them jobs at McDonald’s. Or let them do their homework in packs at Starbucks. Or even let them go home to their rooms and stay on the Internet until dinner is announced. Another issue in this discussion of scheduling is the fact our kids need more exercise. Schools with sports programs serve the elite few who qualify; those kids do not need more exercise. Athletic programs do encourage competition, which apparently is another attribute we hope to inspire in our young. But the majority of fans — cheering in the bleachers or watching sports on TV are not getting any healthier. This week a flu strain has been pronounced epidemic, keeping a lot of kids out of school. It seems the brilliant minds of medicine came up with a vaccine that fell short of its goal. (Ironically, doctors did  have long days in school when they were medical students.) So what’s the answer? More music lessons, dance lessons, science projects, drama groups, and summer camp? Not for families living on the poverty line. Yay for grandparents who step in and help — but many of them are working, too. As far as I know, no one had seriously suggested an extended school day based on a four day classroom week (including enrichment classes) with the fifth day reserved for sports – not athletic teams, but physical games of all kinds played on community fields with kids from other schools. Buses could be used to get them there and back to the home schools. THERE ARE MANY BENEFITS: (1) No duplication: sports facilities and specialized staff would be the responsibility of the community parks department (and be budgeted accordingly), so schools would not have to fit sports facilities into their budgets, intended for classroom teaching. (2) Cultural integration. Kids would come together crossing socio-economic and ethnic boundaries by meeting at community fields, and at an early age would get to know people from other parts of the world, in which they may someday work. (3) Equal opportunity health. Every kid can participate in some sport, and maybe even get to be good at it. They would at least get exercise. (4) Planning day. Teachers could use the Field Day (what it used to be called) to prepare lessons or have in-service training. (5) Parent liberation on weekends. There would be less pressure on parents to sign their kids up for soccer or baseball just to give them exercise and encourage competitiveness. Soccer coaches could be home with their own kids (having worked on Friday instead). (6) Community revitalization. Cities, towns and neighborhoods could establish new multipurpose sports parks in neglected or decaying areas – even at closed-down school grounds — as part of infill. They could turn obsolete, water-sucking golf courses into tennis courts or running tracks, or even community gardens. Working parents or groups of corporate volunteers could take Friday lunch hours or afternoons to see the kids at play. They could help with the games, getting some exercise of their own. Food wagons could gather around the playing fields and prosper. They could all stay into evening hours. There would be no rush hour.

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