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Longer school year, better outcomes

For most New York students, school officially began on Sept. 6. But my students had already been in class for more than two weeks. That’s because charter schools are granted flexibility in exchange for high performance, and many charter schools choose to use that flexibility to extend the school year.

In the past I often wondered if those extra days actually had any impact. As I enter my third year at Achievement First, and my fifth year of teaching overall, the benefits have become clearer. I see four major benefits of a longer school year:

1. Mitigating the summer slide

Every year, teachers will undoubtedly spend the first few weeks of school reviewing the previous year’s material. Summer break is associated with lost learning, and for low-income students, it is often cited as widening the achievement gap. I used to consider the beginning of school an adjustment and review period, both for teachers and students. But with each passing year, I see less of a need to re-teach our scholars, as they’ve had less time away from the rituals and routines of the classroom and they have more days of schooling under their belts.

2. Preparation time for teachers

Returning to work on July 30 was a strange feeling, to say the least. While many of us teachers initially balked at the idea, those two-and-a-half weeks provided us with valuable time to get ready for students. And as a result, we started the year with our classrooms set up and organized, long-term plans in place and several hours of meetings to acclimate new staff. This is a far cry from the two-day scramble I’ve had in previous years. While I certainly had to put in more time ahead of schedule, it was easier to start the year.

3. Higher test scores

While I have not conducted a fair experiment on this matter, anecdotally I see a correlation between my scholar's performance and their time within our charter school network.

For the past two years, our eighth-graders have had 100 percent proficiency on state math assessments along with several eighth-grade student passing the Algebra Regents. This year, however, our sixth-grade class was the first to achieve 100 percent proficiency in math. After four years in our school with longer school days and a longer year, our eighth-grade students consistently outperformed surrounding schools in mathematics, but we lagged behind in the lower grades. Suddenly this year, our scholars in sixth grade are also performing at a staggering 100 percent proficiency.

The reason? I believe it is because these are the first students to matriculate through Achievement First all the way from elementary school. We can even see the benefits in English Language Arts, as 60 percent of our students scored proficient compared to 47 percent city-wide. These scholars have experienced longer school days and longer school years since kindergarten. This has created an entire class of students with several weeks of schooling ahead of their peers—and their test scores show the benefits.

4. Higher overall performance (the intangibles)

While I am deeply invested in our math and English Language Arts scores, my students are not tested until eighth grade. So as a sixth grade science teacher, I especially notice and value the intangible growth among my students. In my first year I needed to teach the basics, such as map skills and using a ruler. Now I can jump right to more complex topics such as designing fair experiments and using models to represent scientific phenomenon. Each and every day I see the benefits of a longer and more consistent education for my scholars.

All schools deserve the flexibility and opportunities that charter schools have to become successful. With each passing year, I become more convinced of the benefits of the extended school year. These extra days in the classroom, along with our ability to develop a consistent school culture, have given us the catalyst we need for academic success. It is time that we empower all of our schools to be as successful.

Tamara Gilkes is a 2012 School Reform Blogging Fellow for NYCAN. She teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School. Outside of the classroom, Tamara advocates with Educators 4 Excellence to include teachers in school policy decisions. She previously served as a Teach for America corps member in the South Bronx.