New Orleans students take no vacation from learning

New Orleans students take no vacation from learning
July 17, 2009
by Sarah Carr
The Times-Picayune

The students at Robert Russa Moton Charter School were in a groove. Fifth-graders opened books, and dived in. Third-graders worked on addition tables, obediently complying when a teacher asked, "Let me see whose finger is on the right spot."

The 4-year-old kindergartners sat on the floor, intently linking together rubber blocks.

"We're working on our manipulative and motor skills, " their teacher said.

"And we're building something, too, " added one of her students.

It was hard to believe the students were just starting their second day of school.

But at Moton, and an increasing number of schools throughout the city, opening week has taken on a whole new meaning. The unstructured free time that was once a rite of childhood summers is no more for many New Orleans public-school students. Increasingly, schools have added weeks on to the school year or adopted year-round schedules, so students never spend much more than a few weeks outside of class.

The goal is simple: eliminating the summer brain drain.

"When kids sit out of school for three months, they lose a huge percentage of what they've learned, " said Adam Meinig, the principal of KIPP Believe College Prep.
Jennifer Zdon/The Times-PicayuneDestiny Dupree does a math exercise on the board in her third-grade classroom at Robert Russa Moton Charter School, which operates on a schedule of nine weeks on and three weeks off.

Studies back up what Meinig says. And the academic regression tends to be more common among poorer children, who are less apt to be exposed to activities that exercise the brain: trips to libraries and museums, for instance.

Nationally, KIPP -- short for the Knowledge is Power Program -- spends about $1,200 per student each year to add time to the school day and year, according to a new report by the education consulting company Cross & Joftus. The report notes that as growing numbers of schools across the country expand classroom hours, most are relying on private dollars or community partnerships to help pay for it.

In New Orleans, where a majority of the schools are now independent charters, schools have more autonomy to set their own calendars, and several have aggressively pursued private and grant money to enrich their offerings, including by adding more time. The state-run Recovery School District has also added instructional time for its students, lengthening the school day, among other things.

Trend toward longer years

Moton was an early pioneer in the effort, fighting during the past 20 years for a schedule that kept students in school year-round. But since Katrina, New Orleans public schools with long summer breaks -- more than six or seven weeks -- are becoming the exception rather than the norm.

The format and length of the extended year varies. At Moton, students spend nine weeks in school, and then three weeks off. KIPP Believe has shortened its summer so students start the academic year in mid-July instead of the traditional August opening. And more than 20 public schools advertise a mandatory extended school year in the New Orleans Parents' Guide to Public Schools, with several others offering "optional" summer programs.

Advocates say the two- to three-month summer break has its roots in an agrarian calendar that holds little relevance today. While wealthier families often use the time to send their children to summer camps or enrichment courses, low-income families have fewer options.

"I think (extended year) is driven by a recognition that if we are going to close the achievement gap, we need to give kids more time to learn, " said Gina Warner, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Afterschool Partnership. "That's really the premise of after-school and summer learning."

A strong body of research suggests that low-income students, in particular, start a new school year behind where they left off in May or June.

One study by Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, found that two-thirds of the achievement gap between "disadvantaged youngsters and their more advantaged peers" can be explained by summer habits. Middle-class students with more educated parents, he said, were more likely to take their children to museums, the library or summer classes.

Warner supports longer school years if educators consider the scheduling impact on working families and try to incorporate enrichment activities that are less common during the traditional school year, like summer nature camps.

"I would hate to see us miss those kinds of experiences in our rush to bring up academic levels, " she said.

Children warm up to idea

School leaders say families, for the most part, welcome a year-round calendar or longer school year.

"It provides a service to families, " said Michael Richard, director of Pride College Prep, a charter school opening next month. "I'm doing home visits now, and the parents are thrilled. I have yet to meet a negative reaction."
Jennifer Zdon/The Times-PicayuneFourth-grade teacher Brenda Irvin helps her students with a reading exercise at Robert Russa Moton Charter School. Since Katrina, New Orleans public schools with long summer breaks are becoming the exception rather than the norm.

Pride College Prep will have relatively short breaks: Students will never be off for more than three weeks at a time. They will attend for 193 school days -- well above the norm.

Yvette Martin, whose daughter attends KIPP Believe College Prep, said the middle-schooler does not mind the three-week August summer session used to introduce new students to the KIPP culture and re-introduce all of them to academics.

"She is very eager to go back to school, " Martin said, adding that her daughter asked for books to read during her recent six-week summer break, something she rarely did during longer summers.

Another parent, Althea Atkins, said her son, Robert, initially expressed reluctance about spending almost the entire year in intensive academic or music programs. But now he's bought in.

"When he complained I told him, 'You're competing against kids going to the Ivy League who've been exposed to the best education money can buy, ' " she said. "You have to work twice as hard. You have to study twice as hard. Once he started going, he gave 100 percent."

Test score tonic

Moton, now located off Chef Menteur Highway, first changed its schedule 20 years ago, adding 40 days to the school year.

Immediately, the school started to get results, recalls Principal Paulette Bruno. In the first quarter of the year, only seven students were suspended, compared with more than 50 a year earlier. Bruno said the "children weren't out of school long enough to get into problems."

No longer did Moton's educators have to spend the first few weeks of the school year reviewing last year's material. Within a few years, Moton's test scores and reputation bounced up.

In the early 1990s, however, the Orleans Parish School Board told Moton it no longer had the money to pay for a longer school year, Bruno said. At that point, the school switched to a year-round schedule -- with the traditional number of school days spaced evenly around the school year. During the three-week breaks, students have the option of attending morning classes at Moton, which feature elective offerings like cooking in addition to core academic fare.

Bruno said the school uses its Title 1 money, federal financing aimed at boosting achievement among low-income students, to pay teachers to work during those breaks, when nearly 75 percent of the families choose to come to school. Today, Moton is one of the highest-performing open-enrollment public schools in the city.

Holding school year-round seems natural now. "I can't even imagine what we did during the three months off, " Bruno said.
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