A growing number of students in Denver Public Schools are facing longer school days and shorter summer breaks under initiatives begun in the past year to boost student performance.
Take Manual High School, where students showed up Monday for their first day of class less than a week after celebrating the Fourth of July. Manual’s ninth through 12th graders began their school year a full seven weeks before most of their Denver Public Schools’ peers.
They will also be in class an hour longer each day than most other district high school students, beginning their day at 7:45 a.m. and winding up at 3:45 p.m., or sticking around until 4:30 p.m. for tutoring.
It’s part of a trend known as “extended learning time,” and supporters say more time spent learning means more opportunities for kids – especially at-risk youth who may lack enriching summer activities or who may not be at grade level.
While Manual’s school year may be the longest, schools in Far Northeast Denver will also start early, on Aug. 8 vs. the Aug. 27 start date for most DPS schools.
“Extended time used well is what makes the difference for kids who are considered to be at-risk … It’s something we really want to grow in our districtwide strategy.”
– DPS chief academic officerA handful of middle schools are also adding an hour to their school days this year. Still other Denver schools – Merrill and Grant middle schools, and Johnson Elementary – are piloting extended time in the classroom. At Manual, that means 210 school days, with 25 of those days spent on field trips. Most schools are on a 171-day cycle.
“The research is pretty clear that extended time used well is what makes the difference for kids who are considered to be at-risk,” said DPS Chief Academic Officer Susana Cordova. “Certainly, it’s not just a question of getting kids into seats and doing the same old, same old.”
Cordova described Manual’s approach to education, which includes educational excursions and courses taught by non-teachers through the local YMCA in financial literacy, film, team sports, computers and healthy living, as “innovative.”
And she cited well-known success stories from schools with longer days and years, including West Denver Prep, DSST and KIPP charter networks. Additionally, English language learners in DPS elementary and middle schools are getting an extra 20 half days of school via a summer academy.
“It’s something we really want to grow in our districtwide strategy,” Cordova said.
Students buzzing with excitement on Manual’s early first day
Manual senior Jose Mendoza, 17, would be the first to go to college in his family. And right now, that is his plan. He has his eyes on Colorado State University in Fort Collins or Pueblo.
“There was nothing really to do for me in the summer. I’m ready to see my friends again.”
– Manual student Jose MendozaWith backpack on, he zoomed around Manual’s bustling lobby at 7:30 a.m. Monday, hugging friends and talking about the upcoming year, which includes trips to Washington, D.C., and New York City.
“I’m so happy,” Mendoza said. “There was nothing really to do for me in the summer. I’m ready to see my friends again.”
Like most students interviewed, he is mostly excited about the trips. Two key parts of the school’s focus are experiential learning and social justice. The school’s motto? Learn it and live it. The goal? To close the achievement gap in eight years, and to produce a crop of college- or job-ready students with the skills and knowledge to change the world.
On the second day of school, students will be shuttled to Colorado State University to stay in dorms and hash out what it really means to be a scholar and a revolutionary, Principal Brian Dale said.
“Just adding time is not getting the results we want,” Dale said. “We need to use that time to engage students in different ways.”
Still waiting for results of Manual’s shutdown and turnaround
The transformation at Manual, which was shuttered in 2006-07 due to poor performance, has not necessarily produced the desired academic results – yet.
DPS’ 2011 School Performance Framework, which rates schools on academic performance and progress as well as indicators such as graduation rates, gives the school passing marks in academic progress but only “approaching” grades for performance. Manual is rated “accredited on watch,” the third of five possible categories.
School staff expected an enrollment of 377 this year, but only 286 students had enrolled as of Monday.
“I’m thrilled with that,” said Dale, formerly assistant principal at Bruce Randolph School, another school that’s undergone transformation. “With the July start I had hoped for 300, but thought it would be more like 200. I’m confident that in August, when regular school starts, we will be up with the projections.”
Meanwhile, the DPS school board voted last month to add middle school grades to Manual, provided the school meet specific academic and enrollment goals. Sixth through eighth graders are expected to come on board in fall 2014, though some board members argued for a 2013 middle school opening.
Student enthusiasm was not in short supply for Monday’s launch of the 2012-2013 school year.
Naimah Bellamy, 16, was getting tired of swimming in her apartment complex’s pool in Green Valley.
“There was nothing to do – my friends were not there,” she said, between excited interactions with school friends.
Miguel Barron, 17, has never traveled to any states outside Colorado, although he has visited family members in Mexico. He can’t wait to go to Washington, D.C.
More time means more money for teachers but many leave
It was the Manual students that drew Isabel Broer to the school as a math teacher. This year, she’ll handle data and assessment but still run a student “advisory,” much like a homeroom for girls that lasts throughout the course of their high school years.
“I’m just as excited to be here as they are,” Broer said. “I fell in love with them last year. I know what they’re capable of. These students are phenomenally talented. They bring passion and energy for learning to the classroom.”
However, not all teachers were on board with the lengthy school year, despite a 25 percent pay boost for 18 percent more work. Forty percent – or nine of the school’s teachers – left, meaning nearly half the school’s teachers are new this year. Because the school has “innovation status,” it doesn’t have to worry about violating district regulations or teachers union rules and has more flexibility around staffing decisions.
Douglas Clinkscales, Manual’s football coach and assistant dean of students, is one of two teachers still at Manual since the school reopened in 2007.
“You’re my first victim – take your hat off,” Clinkscales gently told a young man wearing a black ball cap, before the coach began chatting with a reporter.
“I grew up in the neighborhood,” said Clinkscales, a former history teacher. “I love this community. I love what we started here. We’re just now getting to scratch the surface. There is a lot of work to be done. But I don’t like to leave a work in progress.”
Clinkscales said he used to end up working over the summer anyway, between sports activities and academic planning. He thinks a longer school year will be great for the kids. And the families were supportive.
“It’s a safe environment and opportunity to grow.”
Paying for more time at school – and what about the heat?
The challenge remains paying for some of the incredible experiences planned for this year.
Dale said it will cost $1 million to pay the teachers for the extra time, buy airline tickets and cover the other trip expenses. School staff originally discussed rotating teachers throughout quarters but decided that would be too disruptive to students. The school has raised half of the needed money, including some funding from the Colorado Legacy Foundation.
“I’m excited for him. This really gives him a head start.”
– Manual mom Michelle TrujilloThen there’s the issue of heat. Remember those sweltering classrooms last fall? Dale said there are swamp coolers positioned in the school to keep the temperatures if not cool, at least tolerable.
Michelle Trujillo attended John F. Kennedy High School on Denver’s southwest side, but her mom was a Manual alum. Monday, she helped enroll her ninth-grade son Timmy. She is thrilled with the opportunities her son will have that weren’t available to her. She said she is impressed how each child is referred to as a “scholar.”
“It makes kids feel better about themselves – they want to do good,” Trujillo said.
She admitted that her son didn’t want to start school so early. But some new school clothes and the prospect of being around his peers worked magic over the weekend.
“I’m excited for him,” she said. “This really gives him a head start.”