Denver schools launch extended learning pilot

Denver Public Schools’ officials in January began talking with middle school parents about adding an hour to each school day, a proposal aimed at boosting achievement in grades that have typically lagged in performance.

In the end, however, angry parents, scheduling snafus, busing questions and teachers concerned about pay and programming derailed the district’s plan.

Seven DPS schools will be adding time to each school day in the fall and they’re not all middle schools.

Schools that are part of an extended learning time pilot program:

  • Manual High School
  • North High School
  • Lake International Baccalaureate Middle School
  • Merrill Middle School
  • Grant Beacon Middle School
  • Cole Arts and Science Academy
  • Johnson Elementary

“It was always our intention to be a program that was primarily based on buy-in from the school community as a precondition for it to be successful,” said Susana Cordova, DPS chief academic officer.

That’s not necessarily the way it seemed in January to some parents, who came away from informational school meetings with the distinct impression the matter was not open to debate.

Then, several parents told EdNews that it sounded as if schools weren’t being given a choice. Tracey Pliskin, PTA president at the Hill Campus of Arts & Sciences middle school, said, “It seems like it’s kind of mandated for all DPS middle schools.”

That’s not necessarily what ended up happening. In fact, Pliskin said Hill is adding 25 minutes to each school day in the fall – but it is not considered part of the district pilot. “I don’t know if this was a compromise,” she said.

Pliskin said she personally supports the idea of a longer school day at the middle school level. Her kids get out of school at 2:30 p.m., but most after-school programs don’t start until 4 p.m.

“If there was no issue of money and busing and the teachers were supportive, as a parent I definitely would be supportive,” she said. “I think they could use more learning time.”

Colorado requires K-12 schools offer a minimum of 360 hours of instruction per semester, according to the state Department of Education. That’s 720 hours in a typical two-semester school year. Traditional DPS middle schools offer roughly 1,026 hours of instructional time during the school year; adding an hour a day would increase that to about 1,197.

Most traditional DPS middle schools have operated on a schedule of 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. An added hour would keep most students in school until 3:30 p.m. But each school in the pilot may have a slightly different schedule.

Teachers’ union concerned about process and pay

Concerns about the initiative also came from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, but most issues regarding the collective bargaining agreement have been worked out, said DCTA President Henry Roman.

Roman said his primary concern was that teachers be integral in deciding whether a school wanted to join the pilot – or not. Pay was also an issue, but an agreement was reached on an hourly rate for teachers in the pilot.

Meanwhile, Roman said some schools, such as Hill, are coming up with hybrid schedules that would add time to their days but not as much as those in the pilot, and details are still being hashed out.

Schools that decided they wanted to be part of the pilot had to submit an application to tap into money to pay for their expanded programs.

The $2.5 million that will be spent on the extended school day pilot comes out of the district’s reserve fund. That approach also raised questions since the reserve is a one-time pot of money.

According to a district news release about the allocation of the reserve funds, an extended school day “offers teachers additional academic instructional time, which benefits students who need targeted support in areas such as literacy or math.”

“Additionally, a longer school day will offer more time for schools to include elective courses that better connect students to school as well as to implement additional tutoring programs.”

Cordova said funding is secured for the pilot: “The question is what we do after the pilot. That will be based on what we find out of the pilot.”

Meanwhile, DPS school board members are mulling a plan to ask voters to support a tax increase in November. Of the proposed $49 annual increase in operating dollars, about $28 million would be dedicated to enrichment and student supports, including extended time, DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong said.

Schools in the pilot spent part of last year working out kinks and there may still be snafus, such as adjusting a complicated transportation schedule.

“It seems simple, but there is a great deal of nuance to it,” Roman, the union president, said.

Johnson Elementary says “yes” to longer school day

Robert Beam, principal of Johnson Elementary, said he is excited to give the longer day a try – but he has some concerns too. He’s anxious about the fact that the schedule changes are not being phased in as they have been at some high-performing DPS charter schools often held up as models of academic success.

“I know the kids will benefit,” Beam said. “Realistically, we’re being asked to build a plane while it’s flying, as well as increase speed and performance at the same time. I hope that’s recognized.”

A few factors are in Johnson’s favor. Most students walk to the school in southwest Denver, the schedule change was supported by 93 percent of Johnson teachers and the school already has a strong after-school program in place through a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant.

At Johnson, the extended day will give teachers two things they say they want – more time with their kids and more time for planning.

Under the school’s plan, students in grades 1 – 5 will get 70 more instructional minutes per day, in part by shortening lunch by 15 minutes. Teachers will get 90 minutes of uninterrupted planning time during the school day. Students will start school at 8:10 a.m. and get out at 3:45 p.m.; teachers’ hours will be 7:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

“That more than doubles per day than what teachers currently have” for planning,” Beam said.

Students will get more time in math and literacy, along with a new enrichment block. Beam is busy trying to form partnerships with community organizations such as the Denver Zoo, the Denver Public Library and Junior Achievement so that all his students – of whom 90 percent are English language learners –  have the same experiences as children in more well-heeled parts of the city.

“Kids in high-risk neighborhoods need more knowledge experiences,” Beam said. Nearly 98 percent of students at Johnson come from families poor enough to qualify for federal meal assistance.

Preschool and kindergarten students will stay longer too, but they are not part of programmatic changes underway. They will have recreational and story time to match the after-school bell times of older siblings.

Beam is also planning to hire a coordinator to plan and assess components of the extended learning day.

“If we can’t prove it works, we shouldn’t be doing it,” Beam said.

Julie Poppen can be reached at