Students at I.S. 30 play the strategic game of tag called one step on Thursday during their extended day.
Students at I.S. 340 played a strategic game of tag called “one step” on Thursday during their extended day, part of a city pilot program.

After dismissal on the first day of school at I.S. 30, sixth-graders filed into the auditorium, where Principal Carol Heeraman asked an important question: How many had permission to stay for two and a half more hours?

Only a handful of students raised their hands, and the rest were dismissed with instructions to have their parents sign the permission form by the next day. “This is your homework assignment,” Heeraman said.

I.S. 30 is one of 20 city middle schools to pilot an extended day this year as part of the Department of Education’s two-year-old Middle School Quality Initiative. Some schools started the year with near-perfect attendance, but others are learning that getting all students who are eligible for the programming to attend can be a complicated endeavor.

In I.S. 30’s auditorium, one student raised his hand and asked, “What if my mom doesn’t want me to stay?”

Heeraman told the student, Emad Rabah, to have his mother speak directly to her. “This is a phenomenal opportunity for each of you,” the principal said.

Afterward, Rabah said his mother needs him to pick up his younger brother from school. If he doesn’t leave I.S. 30 at the regular dismissal time, no one will be able to take his brother home.

Rabah’s family’s needs represent some of the many challenges that schools are facing in trying to get all sixth-graders to stay after the regular school day ends. In the pilot, which city officials announced in April, students will split their time between getting literacy tutoring from tutors trained by Harvard University’s EdLabs, a research institute, and participating in activities such as drama and debate that are run by the community-based organization that is partnering with each school.

In the coming weeks, schools will screen students’ literacy skills to determine which students should get the intensive tutoring, which Daniel Levitt, EdLabs’ regional director, will aim to help middle performers who struggle with reading comprehension rather than fluency. For now, students are getting to know each other through team-building activities.

At I.S. 340 on Thursday, students played games such as “one step,” a strategic game of tag where participants do not run. “Take five giant steps and two hops… and remember who’s on your team! Don’t tag your teammate!” shouted the adult leading the activity.

The sixth graders eyed one another and carefully plotted their moves so that they could tag someone on the opposite team and make sure they wouldn’t get tagged. While the activity was fun, it was also “getting them to think about critical thinking, being strategic and staying focused — all of those 21st-century ‘soft’ skills,” said Tameeka Ford-Norville, the director of after-school programs for University Settlement, which is working with I.S. 340.

Ford-Norville said University Settlement is going to great lengths to make sure that all sixth graders can participate. When a father told her that he gets physical therapy during the time his daughter would be ending the extended day and he doesn’t want her to walk home alone, she started working on a solution.

“We’re currently trying to devise a plan so we can support that family, which might mean a staff person escorting the student home,” Ford-Norville said.

The city will provide late busing for students with disabilities who require it, but other students are on their own for travel from school, which will happen after dark during the winter months. Students at only two of the 20 schools typically are bused, and they will receive Metrocards for their extended day travel, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.

Other schools have encountered different obstacles to full participation. At J.H.S. 123, City Year School Partnerships Director Annie Kessler said about 120 of the 147 sixth graders have signed up, while about a dozen families have decided to opt out. Families cited needing their older children to supervise younger siblings, past negative experiences with after-school programs, and just having a preference for going straight home after school.

“We’re currently working with the school to troubleshoot around as many of these reasons as we have control over,” Kessler said. She and other program coordinators said they think once the literacy tutoring begins, schools will be able to make a more convincing case for participation.

The efforts appear to be paying off. Less than a quarter of I.S. 30’s sixth graders stayed for the first extended day, but just three days later, more than half the grade was enrolled. Annette Scaduto, director of operations with the NIA Community Services Network, the nonprofit providing the after-school programming, said the numbers are encouraging.

But she said a couple of families had asked to opt out and she planned to strategize with Heeraman about how to get them to change their minds.

“We can’t force a child to stay … but if it’s a family that we know would be a great candidate for the program, and there isn’t much standing in the way for them to participate, then we’ll continue to communicate with them and encourage them to try it out,” Scaduto said.

At some schools, families needed little prompting to sign off on the extended day program. At Thurgood Marshall Academy, half of sixth graders had had an extended day in elementary school, according to Vanessa Portillo, who works with the community organization Abyssinian Development Corporation. At the newly opened Highbridge Green School, where parents played an instrumental role in getting the school opened and wanted the extended day for their children, said Davon Russell, who works at WHEDco, the school’s community partner. Both schools have 100 percent of sixth-graders enrolled.

At other schools, officials are promoting the idea that the extended day is just part of the normal routine. Russell refers to the extended day as “periods 9 and 10.” At I.S. 240, CAMBA’s director of youth development Christie Hodgkins said, “The message that families have gotten is that the school day ends at 4:45.” (She said about 224 out of 270 sixth-graders have enrolled.)

And at M.S. 43, the Child Center of New York’s program director Jacqueline Gutierrez said while the school can’t make the extended day program mandatory, it has told parents that it’s part of the sixth grade curriculum and the child must attend. So far, about 50 sixth graders have enrolled out of about 100 to 120, she said.

Some parents did not need much convincing during the programs’ first week. On Thursday at I.S. 340, Zuleika Johnson said she likes that school ends later because she works late and would have to pay for a babysitter to look after her daughter. But, she said, more importantly, the extra time at school would help her daughter get the academic help she needs.

On Monday, Filiez Yumasak got to I.S. 30 at the regular time to pick up her daughter. When her daughter ran out of the school and presented the permission slip to let her participate in the extended day program, Yumasak was shocked. But she quickly smiled when she saw how excited her daughter was. She said she would let her daughter stay, because her daughter loves school and would stay there all day if she could.

“It’s good because it will create more opportunities for her,” Yumusak said.

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 ChicagoEdSource (California), and GothamSchools’ sister site EdNewsColorado.