Denver schools launch extended learning pilot

Denver Public Schools’ officials in January began talking with middle school parents about adding an hour to each school day, a proposal aimed at boosting achievement in grades that have typically lagged in performance.

In the end, however, angry parents, scheduling snafus, busing questions and teachers concerned about pay and programming derailed the district’s plan.

Seven DPS schools will be adding time to each school day in the fall and they’re not all middle schools.

Schools that are part of an extended learning time pilot program:

  • Manual High School
  • North High School
  • Lake International Baccalaureate Middle School
  • Merrill Middle School
  • Grant Beacon Middle School
  • Cole Arts and Science Academy
  • Johnson Elementary

“It was always our intention to be a program that was primarily based on buy-in from the school community as a precondition for it to be successful,” said Susana Cordova, DPS chief academic officer.

That’s not necessarily the way it seemed in January to some parents, who came away from informational school meetings with the distinct impression the matter was not open to debate.

Then, several parents told EdNews that it sounded as if schools weren’t being given a choice. Tracey Pliskin, PTA president at the Hill Campus of Arts & Sciences middle school, said, “It seems like it’s kind of mandated for all DPS middle schools.”

That’s not necessarily what ended up happening. In fact, Pliskin said Hill is adding 25 minutes to each school day in the fall – but it is not considered part of the district pilot. “I don’t know if this was a compromise,” she said.

Pliskin said she personally supports the idea of a longer school day at the middle school level. Her kids get out of school at 2:30 p.m., but most after-school programs don’t start until 4 p.m.

“If there was no issue of money and busing and the teachers were supportive, as a parent I definitely would be supportive,” she said. “I think they could use more learning time.”

Colorado requires K-12 schools offer a minimum of 360 hours of instruction per semester, according to the state Department of Education. That’s 720 hours in a typical two-semester school year. Traditional DPS middle schools offer roughly 1,026 hours of instructional time during the school year; adding an hour a day would increase that to about 1,197.

Most traditional DPS middle schools have operated on a schedule of 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. An added hour would keep most students in school until 3:30 p.m. But each school in the pilot may have a slightly different schedule.

Teachers’ union concerned about process and pay

Concerns about the initiative also came from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, but most issues regarding the collective bargaining agreement have been worked out, said DCTA President Henry Roman.

Not only did Manual High School students start school seven weeks earlier than most schools, their school day will be longer this year.

Roman said his primary concern was that teachers be integral in deciding whether a school wanted to join the pilot – or not. Pay was also an issue, but an agreement was reached on an hourly rate for teachers in the pilot.

Meanwhile, Roman said some schools, such as Hill, are coming up with hybrid schedules that would add time to their days but not as much as those in the pilot, and details are still being hashed out.

Schools that decided they wanted to be part of the pilot had to submit an application to tap into money to pay for their expanded programs.

The $2.5 million that will be spent on the extended school day pilot comes out of the district’s reserve fund. That approach also raised questions since the reserve is a one-time pot of money.

According to a district news release about the allocation of the reserve funds, an extended school day “offers teachers additional academic instructional time, which benefits students who need targeted support in areas such as literacy or math.”

“Additionally, a longer school day will offer more time for schools to include elective courses that better connect students to school as well as to implement additional tutoring programs.”

Cordova said funding is secured for the pilot: “The question is what we do after the pilot. That will be based on what we find out of the pilot.”

Meanwhile, DPS school board members are mulling a plan to ask voters to support a tax increase in November. Of the proposed $49 annual increase in operating dollars, about $28 million would be dedicated to enrichment and student supports, including extended time, DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong said.

Schools in the pilot spent part of last year working out kinks and there may still be snafus, such as adjusting a complicated transportation schedule.

“It seems simple, but there is a great deal of nuance to it,” Roman, the union president, said.

Johnson Elementary says “yes” to longer school day

Robert Beam, principal of Johnson Elementary, said he is excited to give the longer day a try – but he has some concerns too. He’s anxious about the fact that the schedule changes are not being phased in as they have been at some high-performing DPS charter schools often held up as models of academic success.

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“I know the kids will benefit,” Beam said. “Realistically, we’re being asked to build a plane while it’s flying, as well as increase speed and performance at the same time. I hope that’s recognized.”

A few factors are in Johnson’s favor. Most students walk to the school in southwest Denver, the schedule change was supported by 93 percent of Johnson teachers and the school already has a strong after-school program in place through a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant.

At Johnson, the extended day will give teachers two things they say they want – more time with their kids and more time for planning.

Under the school’s plan, students in grades 1 – 5 will get 70 more instructional minutes per day, in part by shortening lunch by 15 minutes. Teachers will get 90 minutes of uninterrupted planning time during the school day. Students will start school at 8:10 a.m. and get out at 3:45 p.m.; teachers’ hours will be 7:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

“That more than doubles per day than what teachers currently have” for planning,” Beam said.

Students will get more time in math and literacy, along with a new enrichment block. Beam is busy trying to form partnerships with community organizations such as the Denver Zoo, the Denver Public Library and Junior Achievement so that all his students – of whom 90 percent are English language learners –  have the same experiences as children in more well-heeled parts of the city.

“Kids in high-risk neighborhoods need more knowledge experiences,” Beam said. Nearly 98 percent of students at Johnson come from families poor enough to qualify for federal meal assistance.

Preschool and kindergarten students will stay longer too, but they are not part of programmatic changes underway. They will have recreational and story time to match the after-school bell times of older siblings.

Beam is also planning to hire a coordinator to plan and assess components of the extended learning day.

“If we can’t prove it works, we shouldn’t be doing it,” Beam said.

Julie Poppen can be reached at [email protected]

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”