‘Pioneer Schools’ give a peek at what CPS’s longer school day will look like

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Chicago Public Schools principal Nancy Hanks prepares three binders that will be given to each teacher outlining Rahm Emanuel's signature education push, the longer school day, which begins its second phase on Monday when schools resume. | Dom Najolia~Sun-Times

Database: 2012 ISAT data for Chicago Public Schools
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On Monday, when the bell rings in Chicago’s year-round public schools to launch the new year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s signature plan for a longer day becomes a reality.

More than 50 schools got a head start, opting in the past year to take the mayor up on an offer to add more time in exchange for more school money ­­ — up to $150,000 for the school, and teacher stipends.

The Sun-Times looked at the 13 participating elementary schools that were not charter schools to get an idea of what the typical school can expect.

They used the extra minutes, some “Pioneer School” principals told the Sun-Times, on remediation and math, extra reading and dance. They bolstered flagging young students with an afternoon snack and wooed parents with promises of innovation.

But the early launch schools showed mixed results in terms of testing. Two of the pioneers had double-digit gains in ISAT test scores, according to preliminary data. The majority showed some improvement, but two lost ground.

And not all improving schools could credit the longer day for their rising test scores. At least fourteen other schools around the city saw double-digit improvement using a nearly six-hour schedule that the mayor has ended.

But on average, the schools that volunteered for the early launch off the longer day boosted test scores by 2.5 percentage points, CPS data showed.

Now they have to rejigger their schedules since the 2012-13 longer day will keep elementary children in school for 7 hours ­­­— not the 7.5 hours the pioneer schools ­initially used — according to a tentative contract between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union.

“I want my time back!” said Nancy Hanks, principal at Genevieve Melody Elementary, a neighborhood school in West Garfield Park.

Hanks ran her school from 8 to 3:30 as of January when Melody opted to change its 8:45 to 2:45 schedule.

“People underestimate how much there is to do in a school day and how much you can offer students,” she said. “You can’t really innovate the way you want if you don’t have access to that time. You make choices, cutting from one area, cutting from another.”

Small group reading and math enrichment pushed up Melody’s test scores.

“Math gains were double digits,” Hanks said. “It’s the area where we focused more time. It makes us think, ‘If we had started in September, would we have seen even more?’”

Brand-new STEM Magnet Academy did start in September, two weeks after it opened its doors in University Village.

“It was what I needed as a new principal in a new school,” Maria J. McManus said.

“We didn’t know the kids we were getting. Being a magnet, we get them from all over the city.”

STEM ­— short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math ­— students received two hours of reading a day and math, plus music once a week, art and physical education and science lab twice a week, and engineering and technology labs twice a week.

Within the parent groups that oppose a longer day, concerns arose about families losing time together after school; extra time spent on test prep instead of quality learning; kids wearing out.

“Initially , several of the parents were concerned,” McManus said. “Actually, I didn’t notice that the kids were drained. Maybe once they got home?

“During the school year, we didn’t notice it at all.”

William H. Brown Elementary bulked up on arts.

“Everyone K through 8 received arts enrichment,” Kenya Sadler said. “We were able to provide ballet to primary students, African dance to older students.” Each child grades 3 to 8 also participated in a semester of ballroom dance, and the school near the United Center offered, with the help of community partners such as the Chicago Bulls, African art and spoken word and drama.

“Our kids lack a lot of prior knowledge because they haven’t been exposed to a lot of things outside of the school and the core curriculum,” Sadler said. “We’re hoping that by bringing in enrichment components, we could build their academic language to learn.”

Brown had the greatest losses in test scores among the pioneer schools, according to a Sun-Times analysis of preliminary 2011-12 data. Bethune Elementary also lost ground, though the North Lawndale school used much of its extra time to add reading help and more math, said Zipporah Hightower, who was principal last year but took a new job in July. And Bethune offered algebra to its middle school students.

Bethune, which lengthened the day in November to an 8 a.m. to 3:30 schedule, did pick up some attendance, Hightower said, which she credits to parents buying in to the change.

“We were doing something a little different,” she said.

“People kept saying, ‘Your children are going to be tired,’” she said. “We did not experience that at all. We put in an extra snack at 1 [p.m.] so our little people weren’t hungry. Outside of that, there was no change.”

Nor did she see any decrease in kids going to after-school activities: Girl Scouts, sports, tutoring.

Skinner North Classical School added more time for math and science, and some extras such as book club, principal Ethan J. Netterstrom said.

Kindergartners got an extra recess.

Theselective enrollment school near Halsted and Division streets lost a little ground. Though 100 percent of students again read and did math at grade level, fewer exceeded grade level in 2011-12 than the year before, according to its test scores.

Skinner will add art to its existing lineup of daily specials ­­— music, Spanish and physical education. Time to go to the library will also be built in, Netterstrom said.

“We added the time to really focus on enrichment,” he said, “not just core instruction.”

Come Monday morning, the bell will ring at Melody at 7:45 sharp, and about 300 students are expected in class.

They’ll be dismissed at 2:45, according to the new schedule, but most will stick around for activities and enrichment at school, rather than doing outside sports and lessons.

“We had kids in building until 5, 5:30 every day anyway,” Hanks said. “Most of the kids, they’re with us anyway.”

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi, Art Golab