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Notebook editorial: Making up for lost time

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

One of the many casualties of the extreme budget cuts suffered by Philadelphia schools in recent years is a drastic reduction in extended learning time offerings – afterschool and summer programs. We won’t shed tears for some of the “drill and kill” test prep activities that bit the dust. But a good school system must provide access to supports like tutoring and academic enrichment activities after hours and in the summer. And those programs have been decimated.

Families are feeling the painful loss of extracurricular offerings such as clubs, arts, and sports that are taken for granted in other school districts. While Superintendent William Hite intervened to save high school sports, few other activities were spared. The near-cancellation of the annual student musical production at High School for Creative and Performing Arts due to budget cuts was instructive – as an exception that proved the rule. Your cherished activity or performance can be resurrected, so long as your school is well-connected and can get the media to mobilize public generosity.

Extracurricular activities can add value to the traditional academic subjects, often providing motivation for students to attend school and keep their grades up. They can build valuable social skills like leadership and teamwork. Activities bring together staff and families, creating cohesive school communities. Restoring this vital piece should be a priority for the District.

However, the way to do so is not by requiring teachers to work longer hours at reduced pay. There are many problems with this, the first being that it is unfair. Imposing terms on a resistant union is likely to trigger a court challenge and exacerbate an already adversarial relationship with the District’s professional workforce. Teachers have been working under untenable conditions – without basics like adequate staffing, counseling, and nursing services – and morale is low. The proposal to impose a longer work day, reduce pay while charging for benefits, and change rules around seniority amounts to a triple whammy for teachers who have been dealing with enormous challenges.

Extra time may not be worth much if teachers are doing it under duress. We hope that new SRC Chair Bill Green rethinks his more-time-or-else position, paying attention to the cautionary tale from Chicago: Lengthening the day, if not well planned, can be counterproductive. And it seems the District is still far from clear on whether it can ensure that extra time is used wisely.

One potentially cost-effective approach for expanding learning time is training and coaching parents to support learning at home. The model developed by Springboard Collaborative, where parents become teachers of literacy skills, is an example that shows promising results. A focus on involving parents can translate into not just student achievement gains, but stronger bonds between families and schools. While no substitute for traditional organized afterschool programs, investments in family literacy, math, and science activities should be explored districtwide. Families can help ensure that students are surrounded by supports from a broad community of learners.

This editorial appears in the Notebook’s print edition focusing on using school time wisely.

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