Going back to school is bittersweet for even the most ardent young student, but some kids are happily returning to a school where the day is 100 minutes longer than usual.
In fact, the attendance rate has climbed at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, where students Wednesday are starting their third year of longer school days.
"The kids are incredibly excited to come to school, more than I've ever seen in my life," said Dave Wheeler, who has taught at Pulaski since it opened in 1972 and says the longer days have also been a "booster" for him late in his career. He wasn't always so certain.
When the idea of lengthening the school day was introduced two years ago, Wheeler, a fifth-grade teacher, wondered whether this was a fad that would soon disappear and if kids would have the stamina for a school day that was eight hours long, rather than six hours and 20 minutes.
But attendance rates at Pulaski have gone up from the low 90 percentiles to the high 90s, and student achievement has gone up on math and reading tests.
The approach is gaining traction statewide. Fifteen of the state's struggling districts, known as Alliance Districts, qualified for state funds this fall to add more hours to the school year — by lengthening the school day, holding school on Saturdays or adding weeks of school in the summer.
Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said that "additional learning time is a promising strategy to help ensure that all our students remain on track to graduate college- and career-ready."
She said state education officials were encouraged that so many teachers and school leaders in the Alliance Districts "have found the way to provide our youngsters with this precious extra learning time."
Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni said he was thrilled with the improved test results, but, he added: "We didn't launch this solely to improve standardized test scores. We did it because we thought students would enjoy and benefit from it."
This year, Pulaski and two other Meriden schools, John Barry and Roger Sherman, will have extended days at an extra cost that ranges from $320,000 to $430,000 per school, Benigni said. He figures that it costs about an additional $1,000 per student — funds from the state and federal government and an innovation grant from the American Federation of Teachers.
Benigni said he thinks the extended time has had good results because "it's not more of the same" pen and pencil work. At Pulaski, kids participate in many computer-based activities as well as such programs as robotics, woodworking, scrapbooking, Zumba, guitar lessons and karate. These activities help develop language and social skills as well as background knowledge about the world and community.
"The school day now features some of the hands-on enrichment that we know students love," Benigni said, "things that quite honestly had been stripped from schools across the nation" to make time for improving test scores. "We are putting back some of the fun learning activities we know engage students and make school fun."
Emily Anastasio, a fourth-grader at Pulaski who is also Wheeler's granddaughter, said she likes the extended day because "you get to do a lot of fun things," from exercising to "technology labs" to scrapbooking and making a pencil holder.
"This year, I'm looking forward to doing foreign languages and karate," she said. "School is fun as it is, but adding this makes it more fun."
Teachers at Pulaski work either an early shift or a later shift, depending on which grade they teach, so that they still work a usual number of hours. Or they can opt to work a longer day and teach an enrichment class as well.
In East Hartford, school officials say the extended day program at O'Connell Elementary School, which is entering its second year, has been a success. Principal Greg Fox said student achievement improved last year, although he said it is hard to directly link that to the 75 extra minutes a day.
"We have definitely seen improvements…" Fox said, "but I can't tell you it's only based on [the] extended day. We have great instruction and extended day."
But, he said, the extended day does allow for "way more support … intervention and enrichment."
In an analysis of research on increased learning time for the U.S. Department of Education, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance found some studies showed it had a positive effect on student outcomes, while in other cases no positive effect emerged.
The review found, for instance, that when instruction was provided by certified teachers, there was a small but significant positive effect on literacy and math achievement. The findings also showed that increased learning time can benefit students at risk of academic failure.
The Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, which has provided technical assistance to Connecticut schools on expanding the school day, cites "a large body of research that confirms the commonsensical connection between time and learning."
That research included a Harvard study that showed that adding at least 300 hours of instructional time and "high-dosage tutoring" were strong predictors of higher achievement.
Robert Travaglini, a senior director for the National Center on Time & Learning who has helped Connecticut districts including Meriden plan how to expand the school day, said that simply adding time to the school day doesn't improve achievement.
"Time alone is not necessarily going to give you that student impact," Travaglini said. "It's how you use that time. … It's really how you structure the day."
In Connecticut, each district and school may decide how to structure the extra time and which students will get it.
At Pulaski, the program is geared to students in first through fifth grades, while at O'Connell it's available only for grades 3 through 6.
O'Connell administrators work with community partners as well as teachers to provide enrichment for children, including programs on African drumming, storytelling, hip-hop dancing, robotics, Zumba, financial fitness and technology programs.
Laurie Stock, a fourth-grade teacher at O'Connell, said that kids have been excited about the enrichment offerings — and she's seen them make strides both academically and socially.
"I don't think they necessarily saw it as school, even though there was direct instruction" that related to academic goals, she said.
Stephanie Ottochian is starting a teaching job this year at Pulaski. Her younger daughter is a student there, and her older daughter, now in middle school, also attended. As a parent, she said, at first she was worried about the longer day, even though young kids generally get up early.
Her daughters have taken Italian, Zumba, woodworking and other enrichment classes and, she said, they have loved them.
"I didn't hear any complaining about getting up early to go."Copyright © 2015, CT Now