Robin Harris, principal of Fletcher Maynard Academy tells a Tuesday roundtable of the School Committee how her school uses two extra hours a day. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Longer days for elementary and middle school students could start in the 2020-21 academic year, but some officials are wondering if the additional time being looked at will be enough.

Officials at a School Committee roundtable held Tuesday talked primarily about longer school days, but potentially about adding weeks to the school year or both, and laid out a timetable with public forums Dec. 5 and Jan. 10 and 12 and school-based meetings Jan. 2-16, with the committee deciding in February or March. That would be followed by contract negotiations with educators to accommodate changed demands on their time and a year of implementation planning.

Though the district has schools already on an extended day schedule – the K-5 Fletcher Maynard Academy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, which in 2006 became two of 10 statewide chosen to try extended learning time – their eight-hour days are not what the district is considering most seriously “based on parent and educator feedback as well as conversations with our out-of-school-time partners,” Superintendent Kenneth Salim said.

Dramatic change, please

The idea of extended school days have been simmering in Cambridge for a half-dozen years, a way to address a range of issues: short recesses and the lack of scheduled “passing” time between classes, the failure to implement long-promised world language courses and the fact most district schools don’t meet  the district’s own weekly instructional time recommendations for core subjects.

As a result, some officials weren’t sure they were ready to take a jump to eight-hour days off the table.

“I’m not sure about a modest way of implementing something that might move the needle a little bit – is that good enough? What is really going to get us to where we want to be?” Mayor Marc McGovern asked. “We have far too many kids in this district, mostly low-income kids of color, not doing as well as they should be doing. What I want to come out of this is something that’s going to dramatically change that.”

Committee member Emily Dexter had anticipated the mayor’s qualms. “What we’re talking about, I’m guessing, is less than an hour – adding 10 minutes to lunch, 10 minutes to passing time, etc., etc., and whittling down. It’s not like we’re talking about loads of extra time to do loads of extra things,” she said.

Open up “breathing room”

Principals came to talk about their days, including from a middle school – Daniel Coplon-Newfield, of the Vassal Lane Upper School – and an elementary school with a traditional six-hour day: Tony Byers, of Graham & Parks, who sketched an extraordinarily complicated list of competing demands that made the schedule at the district’s largest K-5 sound like a picture that had to be assembled from the pieces of several completely unrelated puzzles. Each teacher might have to meet with eight other educators in a week to coordinate work for a single student, or eight other educators in a day, for example – but with “nowhere on that schedule capturing that is happening.”

As another sign of the multitude of factors competing for time, space and staff to shape how the day comes together, Byers said the running joke at his school was: “If you want to know why something is the way it is, the answer is fourth-grade swimming.”

“I can’t imagine how schools do this when they also have Kodaly [music instruction] and world language,” Byers said. “Clever ways of rearranging our schedule are helpful, but … opening up the day just a little bit, it doesn’t even have to be that radical, opens up enough breathing room.”

There are limits to how Graham & Parks can maximize efficiency in its scheduling, and “I’m not sure efficiency should be the goal of education,” Byers said.

The extended-day effect

Robin Harris, of Fletcher Maynard Academy, meanwhile, had the luxury of two additional hours of instruction time four days a week, with that time on Wednesdays set aside for educators’ professional development and staff meetings. “Our teachers were actually saying ‘Wow, we actually have time for social studies and science,’” Harris said, explaining that the expanded planning and teaching time, resulting sense of community and even a full one-hour lunch has made her school “the envy of colleagues around the city.”

“We have loved the extended day, and I think we’re excited to continue. But certainly there are pros and cons,” Harris said. “We have found the pros far outweigh the cons.”

A longer school day for students means a much longer day for teachers, who still take work home after school hours end, resulting in what Harris identified as “teacher fatigue”; and adding two hours to school days subtracts two hours away that could be used for homework. Bus scheduling is another logistical challenge – Salim said he hoped to have answers on that in the coming weeks – and educational costs would rise with adding several hours weekly to staff from nurses to clerks.

But Salim made it clear that the status quo wouldn’t last much longer.

“We can’t address the numerous concerns that have been raised without looking at more time in the school day,” Salim said.