Extending the Day

Yesterday, I spent an hour explaining CPS kindergarten matriculation to a co-worker. He was surprised to learn many things about CPS, but none threw him more than the average length of the CPS school day: an abysmal 5 hours and 45 minutes. He was also shocked to learn that unlike the suburban district in which we both grew up, the start and end times of the CPS school day are inconsistent across the country’s 3rd largest school district.

Coincidentally, my friend Sonia sent me this Catalyst story yesterday about the average length of school days at CPS versus elsewhere. It was published nearly a year ago, in January 2010, but with the mayoral election and just about everything else in Chicago (politics) in flux, now is the time to rally the cry of a longer school day for Chicago students. On the whole, they probably need it more than their well-heeled suburban counterparts.

As the conversation builds, I cannot help but look to my children’s school as an example. It’s an example not only of how the extended day can improve educational outcomes, but also of the cost such initiatives bear. While other schools fundraise for a climbing wall, auditorium update or a red-tape-defying exercise room, we’re spending countless volunteer hours to bridge the gap between the CPS budget and requirements for our teachers’ (much-deserved, in my opinion) salaries and stipends. I’m told that that the fundraising push will have an end-date when the school reaches full capacity not long into the future. Thank goodness, because I am not sure that half the school’s families can continue to bridge the budget gap without developing a sense of entitlement, frustration or both.

Admittedly, I have elementary-aged children who are in 2nd grade and kindergarten, respectively. Except for The Boy’s disastrous preschool year at a local parochial school, I have no parental experience with other schools, or educational or curriculum models. Only time will tell if it’s the right choice for The Boy, The Girl, The Tot (Who Isn’t) and their 309 school and classmates. To some extent, I have faith in the system, in the teachers who say that the longer school day allows them to get deeper into subject matter and give students the tools and time to follow their imaginations. Besides, it’s what suburban districts do, and what experts increasingly say is the right answer.

In my late teens, I lived with a family in France who had 3 young children who were in K-4th grade equivalents during my stay. They attended class every day from 8 until 4, and a ½ day on Wednesdays. I have no idea if the French are as well-prepared for a successful working life as the rest of the world — (they also have a lot of roadblocks to the educational system, beginning with the prémier bac en français, which can keep students in high school until they are well into their 20s) — but they certainly emphasize the importance of classroom learning (and a full hour to eat one’s lunch and run around).

Quality of instruction issues aside, the truncated school day is yet another example of a policy decision that ultimately punishes working Chicagoans. When I suggested to my co-worker that he check that the school hours worked for his family’s needs, he sputtered, “You mean, they are not all the same??” How on Earth are you supposed to get to work on time when you have to drop your child off to school at 8:30, or pick him up at 1:45 p.m.? Although some Chicago firms allow workers to flex their schedules, many do not. In the Chicago Tribune’s list of top-100 Chicago-area companies, almost half were located outside the bounds of the city. Positive cashflow may be good for the mayor, but does it create an ideal urban environment for the worker?

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