After two years of nearly year-round schooling, a shorter year and day are in store for students and teachers at Manual High School.
The change is part of a host of adjustments introduced by the school’s new leader, Don Roy, who is attempting to right the school’s course after a dramatic drop in test scores and the abrupt dismissal of the former principal.
Manual implemented the extended year two years ago as part of an extended learning time pilot program run by Denver Public Schools. The school’s longer schedule was also tightly connected to the school’s experiential learning program.
School leaders’ decision to abandon the extended schedule illustrates some of the challenges that schools face in trying to provide more learning time for students, an effort touted by education leaders from New Jersey governor Chris Christie to President Barack Obama.
Manual’s extended learning time model included several weeks set aside for experiential learning trips that were intended to take classroom learning into the field. The school’s longer day – running from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. – also allowed for up to two hours of teacher planning per day and weekly meetings for the entire faculty. Students were in class from July through June, with three week breaks for summer and winter.
The rollback will begin immediately, with an abbreviated spring semester running two weeks shorter than planned. Next year, the school will largely revert to Denver Public School’s standard schedule.
Still, Manual and the district are working to keep the school in the pilot program, albeit in a scaled back form. What exactly that will look like is contingent on a plan school leaders are currently developing and will submit to the district by the end of the year.
“We do anticipate Manual will have an extended year but it won’t be as long as it was,” said Antwan Wilson, who leads the district’s post-secondary readiness department. “How much longer [than a normal year] will depend on how strong their application is.”
District officials say that the school is abandoning the longer year because of its failure to meet the pilot program’s academic and programmatic requirements.
“There were benchmarks related to student achievement and around program implementation,” said Wilson. “Manual [has] fallen behind.”
The schools participating in the pilot program were evaluated on benchmarks including using the additional time for targeted student support as well as for teacher planning, collaboration and development.
The decision is also meant to let new principal Roy have greater control over the school model. Another school in the pilot program, Lake International School, is also reconsidering their extended year due to leadership turnover.
“We’re not saying to schools, you must be extended year,” said Wilson. “When you have leaders come in and do assessments and ask, is what we’re doing best for kids, leaders may make a change.”
The schedule change was prompted in part by how out of sync the school’s schedule was with the district’s, which has created problems in tracking the school’s spending. Roy said the shorter year is intended to bring the school’s schedule closer to the district’s.
He also said the change will also provide more class time before the testing at the end of the year, rather than waiting until after tests are done.
The goal, Roy said, is “getting things done before the hot summer.”
“It’s all about what you’re doing”
Manual’s struggle with longer school years and days offers lessons on what works (or doesn’t) when schools add more time.
Experts say long school days can burn students out if they are in class all day, as most Manual students are.
“The fact of the matter is it’s all about what you’re doing,” said Sanjiv Rao, a program officer for the Ford Foundation which funds a number of extended learning time projects, including Denver’s. “If it’s more time on narrow tasks like test preparation, that’s absolutely not what we’re advocating.”
Instead, students should spend time on a diverse range of activities and in a range of environments. The question, Rao said, is “how to expose students to things they might not otherwise be exposed to. You have to be creative.”
And students should have a choice in their activities, he said.
“The other piece of the burnout is [the school day] can’t be scripted, especially for high school,” said Rao. “[Students] have to have some voice and choice in what they do.”
As for teachers, Rao said extended time is an opportunity to provide additional support to teachers coping with a slew of reforms, not overload them.
“We’ve observed that there’s a high accountability environment on teachers and leaders, without enough support,” he said. Schools should use extra time for teachers to spend on collaboration and planning. “More and better learning time is not a reform. It’s changing the environment of the school so reforms can work.”
According to the initial plan laid out by Roy, Manual will adopt some of Rao’s suggestions. The school will provide intensive help for students who are behind after the regular school day and teachers will start their school year a week earlier than at most district schools.
Mixed response from students and teachers
Many students expressed relief at the end of the extended day and year.
“My day is really long,” said Rlmari Fisher, a freshman at Manual. “I get home at seven or eight at night.”
And it’s not just long days. According to students and teachers, the long year taxed students’ ability to focus.
“It causes less of a sense of urgency,” said Patrick Seamars, who teaches Spanish. “Kids were burning out and teachers were burning out.”
Students also said they had lost focus by the time tests rolled around, a fact some pointed to as an explanation for last year’s drop in test scores.
“We didn’t put as much effort as we could because we were tired,” said Alma Castillo, a junior at Manual.
The biggest impact of the decision may fall on teachers like Seamars who will have to work Saturdays to fulfill their extended year contracts. It’s been a hard pill to swallow for some teachers.
“It’s a lack of accountability for the decisions [school leaders] made,” said Seamars. Still he is looking forward to his Saturday classes, where he will help students with things they may not get to in class, including art projects and poems in progress.
Not just scheduling
While many in the school are receptive to the schedule changes, what the changes mean for the school’s unusual instructional model have provoked some ire.
The schedule was originally designed to accommodate Manual’s experiential learning trips, which took students to important historical landmarks as an extension of their classroom learning.
The decision to end the extended year will also ease the school’s finances, which have been strained by the trips. Last year, the school overspent by $600,000 and is on track to overspend this year as well.
In part due to the slashed budget, those trips have been heavily curtailed, with a moratorium on trips for this year and shortened trips next year.
But students and teachers who supported the model have been disappointed by the changes.
“It’s really frustrating because I and others wholeheartedly believe in seeing things on the ground,” said Ben Butler, who teaches language arts at Manual.
Still, Butler and others agreed that many trips were disorganized and didn’t always support classroom learning.
“The work that they gave us was more taking notes than continuing what we were doing in class,” Castillo said. Some teachers led successful trip but more often than not, the trips didn’t help her learning.
Even though she and many others found fault with last year’s trips, she worries the change in Manual’s trajectory will drive students away.
“I don’t think a lot of kids are staying,” said Castillo. “Every time they’ve switched things, it affects us because we have to get used to it.”
This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Also participating in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst Chicago, EdSource (California), and Chalkbeat.