Challenging the School Schedule: Wharton Dual Language Academy Joins a Move to Rethink the School Day
In the last days of summer, a familiar rhythm returns to West Gray near Montrose. Each morning traffic slows as parents drop off children at Wharton Dual Language Academy. And each afternoon the movement reverses: youngsters with giant backpacks clump toward the glacial pickup line. Weary teachers wrangle their students, open car doors, and lunge if a little one strays near the curb.
It’s long been a pattern predictable as the seasons. This year, though, there’s a change – one that may have teachers, at least, a little less frazzled when the day ends. Wharton has joined a national wave of public schools questioning America’s traditional school schedule in response to 21st-century realities. As a result, this year Wharton’s school day is 30 minutes longer on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, lasting from 7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and radically shorter on Wednesdays, when school lets out at 12:45 p.m.
At Wharton, a kindergarten to 8th grade public school, the new schedule reflects a new educational approach. But across the country, communities are rethinking their school clocks and calendars in response to developments in economics, gender roles, and even new understandings of neurology. What these initiatives share is the acknowledgement that modern life no longer meshes easily with routines created for an agrarian society that has not existed for close to a century.
Wharton’s parents and administration adopted their new schedule to better accommodate teachers. Over the summer, the school earned designation as an International Baccalaureate, or IB, institution. As a result, Wharton must now meet more than just national, state, and county standards, not to mention the standards of its own Spanish language immersion program. The school must also adhere to IB’s demanding international standards, which stress links between educational materials and require individual assessment and planning by teachers. The shorter Wednesday school day gives teachers time for planning. Meanwhile, the extra 30 minutes on the other days keeps the total weekly class hours the same. To ensure students keep learning during the half days, Wharton has expanded its optional after-school enrichment program.
Similar school hours have been in place for years at River Oaks Elementary and Lanier Middle School, also IB schools. But the change could be tougher for Wharton, where many students come from lower income working families that may have trouble adjusting to a less conventional schedule.
Still, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in Wharton’s Houston Independent School District school zone has been ebbing. According to HISD demographer Justin Silhavy, since 2006 the economically disadvantaged student population in Wharton’s zone has dropped from 68 percent to 33 percent. At the same time, Silhavy says, there has been a 14 percent increase in elementary age children. “Right now,” says Silhavy, “the Wharton school zone is the epicenter of growth in the number of elementary age students in the Montrose area.” He notes that Wharton, which had 472 students in the 2013-2014 school year, is the one school in Montrose that has seen an increase in elementary school students.
How much these demographic shifts shaped this year’s changes at Wharton is hard to say. What’s clear, though, is that Wharton parents pushed for the IB program – and were willing to put up with the changed schedule – to encourage a kind of teaching that is increasingly choked off by standardized testing requirements.
“IB, when done right, is different from an off-the-shelf curriculum,” says Raul Ramos, president of Wharton’s Parent-Teacher Organization. ”So teachers need to come up with their own, organic lesson plans. It’s rare these days for teachers to have time to reflect this way. This gives them a chance to catch up during their work day, instead of A) never catching up, B) taking their work home, or C) catching up with the kids there.”
Changing the school day is no small thing for Wharton families. But it’s just a tweak compared to reforms suggested by some critics. Among the more dramatic proposals: longer school hours and school terms as long as 52 weeks.
The call for more time in school is not new; two early reports on education in America, 1983’s A Nation at Risk and 1994’s Prisoners of Time, both strongly suggested that students spend more hours, and more days, in class to improve performance.
Lower-income students could benefit especially, research shows. Each summer, without the travel, camp, and other enrichments enjoyed by their more affluent schoolmates, low income students may lose up to three months of their skills. By the time they’re in high school, they are typically three years behind their peers. At that point, the effects of what teachers call ”summer slide” are nearly impossible to reverse.
Longer school days and shorter summers also make economic sense, argues Elizabeth Gregory, who directs the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston. Because good quality childcare is expensive or hard to find, she says, working mothers often take part-time or less lucrative jobs in order to be available at home.
“Right now there are three failures in the school schedule for working women,” says Gregory, who is writing a book on school schedules. “The day lets out at 3, when work is not over. For the first five years of a child’s life, there is no care provision at all. And for three months of the year, there is no school.”
The familiar schedule worked well enough in the 19th century, when most Americans lived in rural areas and needed their children to help feed animals before it got dark and harvest crops before it got cold. That schedule even continued to make sense through the mid-20th century, when women were discouraged from working outside the home. Stay-at-home moms could be depended on to supplement the teachers’ efforts as volunteers and be waiting for their children at 3 p.m.
Today, that’s changed. Nonetheless, says Gregory, “Society still expects women to be the primary caregiver, and pick up the child from school or be there when there is an emergency.”
Instituting a major calendar change, though, is unlikely anytime soon. Many Americans feel attached to a system that has defined family life for generations, and the travel industry, which thrives on vacation revenues, has lobbied vehemently against proposals for shorter summers. Few taxpayers may want to fund the extra hours needed for year-round schooling.
Still, other scheduling reforms have gained traction. Chief among these is a movement to make the day start later for high school students. In recent years, neurologists have confirmed what any parent of teenagers knows from life experience: adolescents get sleepy later at night, and grow alert later in the day, than younger children.
The result is an epidemic of sleep deprivation that markedly affects the school performance of U.S. teenagers. Teenagers who sleep eight or nine hours a night, researchers have found, are more punctual, get in fewer fights, and suffer fewer sports injuries. More sleep even seems to improve teenagers’ impulse control. A later start time for high school could make this extra sleep possible.
In 2011, the Brookings Institution urged later start times for American high schools. Then last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke in favor of the idea as well. So striking are the findings about high school and sleep that in 2012, some parents at Bellaire High School considered them when the school proposed a later start time to streamline transportation schedules. They met strong opposition, however, from parents who complained an altered schedule would disrupt after-school sports, extra-curricular activities, and homework.
While Bellaire ended up abandoning the idea, elsewhere in the country some high schools are acting decisively on the research. In the past 20 years, later start times have been adopted at schools in California, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Oklahoma.
Teaching sleepy teenagers, of course, isn’t a problem at Wharton. But finessing when the school day starts, and when it ends, to best suit students, teachers, staff, and parents is an ongoing process. Starting a new school year with a new daily schedule and a new educational approach is a challenge. But as the nation’s schools adjust to 21st century learning, it may be a necessary one.