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A question of time and money

Activists, teachers, and District officials have differing ideas about lengthening the day.

Photo: Charles Mostoller

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Khyrie Brown wants more for his school: more art, more music, more books, more laptops, even more paper towels in the bathrooms.

And although staying longer each day at Blaine Academics Plus, a K-8 school in Strawberry Mansion, isn’t at the top of his agenda, Brown says that what educators call “extended time” can help.

“Last week was the first time I went to Saturday school,” Blaine’s optional PSSA prep classes, said the 14-year-old 8th grader.

“My friend was like, ‘Just come.’ I said, ‘School’s already five days a week, and now it’s six?’ But then I wound up going, and the college student I was with, we got a lot of work done.”

Brown in February gained public attention with an impassioned speech at Bill Green’s first School Reform Commission meeting, inviting the new SRC chair to visit Blaine to witness its struggles.

At the time, there was no way Brown could know that Green would not only visit, but also would announce a big change that could allow Blaine to implement one of Green’s signature priorities: longer school days.

Next year, Blaine’s principal will be able to hire or keep only those teachers willing to implement the school’s new “transformation” plan. Principal Gianeen Powell is developing that plan with a small team of her teachers, backed by a $1.5 million grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).

Powell’s blueprint isn’t final, but “I hope she’s planning to put together a team that wants to spend that extra time,” said Green.

Not everyone at Blaine is thrilled with the requirement that as a “transformation school,” it must replace at least half of the current teaching staff.

There is another problem: Under the teachers’ current contract, more time from them costs more money, and Green has said repeatedly that schools shouldn’t count on that.

The District’s budget crisis has led to the elimination of many afterschool activities (outside of high school sports) because schools no longer have money to pay teachers the hourly extracurricular rate called for in their contract. Some have cobbled together programs like Blaine’s seven-week Saturday school, which serves about 80 of its 400 students, by using volunteers and community partners. And a number of teachers have continued to lead clubs or coach sports teams without compensation.

But how can the District offer all of the students in a school like Blaine the kind of focused, academic instructional time Green has cited as most useful, without spending more money?

“Everything right now is a setup for the teachers’ contract,” said James “Torch” Lytle, a former Philadelphia administrator and Trenton superintendent now at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “[Green] could tell the teachers, ‘We’re going to open schools earlier, keep them open later, and that’s going to be one of the terms of employment.”

More can be better

Since his days on City Council, Green, like many education reformers, has argued that longer days could boost academic outcomes – particularly if students spend more time studying core subjects like reading, math, and science.

“Every student, regardless of his or her academic performance, would benefit from additional time in the classroom,” he wrote in a 2010 policy paper. Upon taking the helm of the SRC, he said, “There have to be longer school days, longer school years.”

Green cites extended-day charters like KIPP and Young Scholars as models for the District. He’s been influenced by the work of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who spent five years studying American schools and has said that the single best way to improve them would be “extended time, any way you can do it.”

At Blaine, few would disagree that almost any kind of expanded time would be an improvement for a school that last year offered no afterschool activities at all.

“A longer day is not necessarily a better day,” cautioned Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. But done right, he said, the kinds of activities that often come with longer days can be a “simple way” of keeping students engaged.

Jordan knows this firsthand.

“I was a talker in school,” he recalled. “I can remember going to my afterschool yearbook club, and my teacher saying, ‘Ms. Brown told me you talked all period in geometry. If you continue doing that, you’re not going to be part of this club.’

“And that was all that had to be said.”

Powell told the same kind of story. “I was a big athlete in school,” she said. “I did well [in class] because the coach was getting on me!”

So when Blaine was awarded its PSP “transformation” grant, Powell surveyed parents about the kind of extended time they favored.

The results showed strong support for traditional afterschool activities like art, music and sports. Parents were less interested in the kind of structured academic programming Green has cited, Powell said, not just because they want their children to have fun, but because they know that sports, clubs, and other extracurriculars help keep students on track in the classroom.

Parents also want their children safe and supervised, which is why Powell doesn’t ever want to see a repeat of last year, when the school offered nothing after 3:09 p.m.

“That was the first year Blaine ever experienced something like that,” she said. “My children weren’t in homework help. They weren’t in art or basketball or softball. They were out in the street.”

That’s the most dangerous place for students to be – especially, as studies have shown, between the end of school and dinnertime.

Khyrie Brown’s mother, Dawn Hawkins, said that when her son leaves school, he must be home or at a trusted friend’s house. “If he’s not there, he gets punished,” Hawkins said. “I don’t play. This is a very dangerous neighborhood.”

Charter schools know about these fears, said Lytle, and longer days are often part of those schools’ appeal.

“Right from the outset, I think the District made a bad mistake in not learning from the charter schools,” said Lytle. “The District is simply not competitive right now, and Bill Green knows that.”

Bill Green (second from left) presided over his first SRC meeting in February — alongside Superintendent William Hite (left) and Commissioners Wendell Pritchett and Sylvia Simms

That tide can be reversed, Lytle said.

As Trenton superintendent in the late 1990s, he found that his schools were losing students to charters. Using federal breakfast funds and philanthropic support, Trenton’s schools were soon opening at 7:30 and closing at 5.

“Within two years we had recaptured 60 percent of the charter enrollment,” Lytle said.

Such expansion “is not nearly as expensive as people might think,” Lytle said, especially if the extended time isn’t required for every student and is staffed by paraprofessionals.

District officials say that individual schools like Blaine can always be given “incremental” funds to pilot extended-day initiatives.

But to offer extra hours of academic time to large numbers of students districtwide without spending more money, the District would have to rework the teachers’ contract to get more hours without paying more wages, Lytle said.

A contract in question

That idea doesn’t sit well with Jordan, whose teachers are already being asked to accept cuts in pay and benefits.

“My team will not agree to that,” Jordan said.

And if Green and the SRC move to impose new work rules that make longer days a requirement? “They’ll do whatever they do, and we will respond,” said Jordan flatly.

District officials say they are not committed to extending days in all schools.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said that the District does not have a single plan it wants to impose on all schools, but he sees two kinds of extended time as particularly valuable – increased academic classroom time for students and increased collaboration time for teachers.

What the District is certain of, Kihn said, is that all principals should have what Powell has now: the ability to set their own schedules and hire teachers willing to work extended hours. And while extended time now “comes at a price” – the cost of overtime – whether that will be true next year depends on the teachers’ contract, Kihn said.

Kihn knows it’s tough for teachers to imagine being asked to work more hours for the same or less pay.

But he also notes that many do it already. “There are dozens of schools where teachers stay beyond … the contract, to work with each other and the students,” Kihn said. “People think it’s the right thing to do.”

At Blaine, Powell and her team hope to lengthen the day for all students with a mix of traditional afterschool activities, like sports and the arts, and academic support, like literacy programs and homework help. She’d also like more collaboration time for her teachers.

For now, she’s planning to fill any extra time with programs run by volunteers or funded by outside partners. She’s not counting on getting more hours from teachers.

But if the contract changes, she acknowledged, so will her options.

Same budget problems

Khyrie Brown likes the idea of more extracurricular activities and more academic help.

But Blaine suffers from shortages that longer days won’t fix, he said: “Broken chairs, messed-up lights. We have books, but they’re old. Not enough laptops. Stuff like that.”

His mother, a volunteer with the pro-union community group Action United who opposes any mandatory changes in the teaching staff at Blaine, said that asking “overwhelmed” teachers for more hours would be “ridiculous.”

The PFT’s Jordan says the same thing: in under-resourced schools, “a longer day doesn’t make any sense.”

But whenever the question of resources comes up, Green has offered the same response: No new money is forthcoming. If anything, budgets are getting leaner. Just weeks after Powell was granted her new authority, her union reluctantly agreed to trim principals’ work year from 12 to 10 months, resulting in about an 11 percent pay cut.

Powell declined to comment on the principals’ contract, saying only that she’d work as much as was needed. “I’m working Saturday, I’m working Sunday, and I don’t get paid for it,” she said.

And while Jordan is adamant that teachers won’t agree to work more hours for less pay, Lytle says the deck may be stacked against them. Even if the teachers can successfully resist imposed work rules (an unresolved legal question), Lytle said, the SRC can always replace more District schools with charters.

With that kind of leverage, he said, extended instructional days could become much more common, even if the budget doesn’t grow by a dime.

“If the teachers were offered more or less the same benefits, and a slightly reduced salary, in exchange for having to be on-site more hours,” Lytle said, “that might be a deal you couldn’t refuse.”

Related: From Chicago, a cautionary tale

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