Longer school days take hold in Massachusetts

Children at work at Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Mass.
Children at work at Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Mass.
CBS News

(CBS News) FALL RIVER, Mass. - At Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Massachusetts, the day starts early. These 6th through 8th graders hear the first bell at ten minutes past seven o'clock.

Principal Michael Procaccini presides over 650 students and 40 teachers experiencing a longer school day -- 90 minutes longer than the regular public school, resulting in 300 extra hours of school every year.

This experiment in extended learning time began in 2007, two years after Massachusetts labeled Kuss "chronically under-performing."

Procaccini says, "A lot of these teachers are in it for the right reasons - they're not here for the extra hours or the extra money," though they do earn 30 percent more for their extra time worked. "They're here because they believe in what we're doing here."

Jen Rezendes, who worked at Kuss before the schedule change, typically teaches double doses of 7th grade math -- back to back 45 minute periods, instead of just one.

"I would like to be less tired, yes. But honestly, I would rather teach here with the extended time, because I don't think I could teach everything I need to teach in that short 45 minute block, Rezendes said. "There is a closing to what I teach on a daily basis. I'm not leaving things hanging. The kids know the goal, and we accomplish the goal at the end of the hour and half block we have together."

English teacher Sharon Puopolo, who's also been at Kuss before the reform, says she sees the difference in her students.

"They're understanding what they read on a deeper level," Puopolo says. "It's building blocks of learning, and our kids are getting through those blocks."

Puopolo says the extra time also allows her to better address everyone's learning needs.

"They may be autistic, or they may be not so gifted in one area as they are in another, and we're able to address those needs and individualize the instruction, and that's what the extra time gets us," she said.

Since going to the longer day, Kuss kids have caught up to their peers. The number scoring "proficient" or "advanced" on standardized tests has risen 47 percent in Math and 58 percent in English, according to test data compiled by Kuss and the National Center on Time and Learning.

"When we first started the initiative, there was a lot of push back from parents," said Meg Mayo-Brown, Fall River School Superintendent.

But enrollment is up, and there's now a waiting list of 60 families in neighboring districts hoping to get into Kuss.

Mayo-Brown is also the mother of a 6th grader at Kuss.

"I was able to see as a parent how engaged my child was at school. He wanted to go each and every day," she said.

None of this would have happened without state funding. Massachusetts subsidizes Kuss with an extra $1,300 a year per student, which enables the school to pay teachers more.

"That's really helped us, I would say, too, in the area of recruiting and retaining teachers," Mayo-Brown said.

Teachers also appreciate the extra time to plan their lessons and to discuss kids who are struggling.

Students tend to like how the extra time enables them to experience more extracurricular activities. Music, dance, art, and sports are part of the daily regimen.

Two of Fall River's other three middle schools plan to lengthen their school day in the fall, as long as the state legislature provides the funding.

Massachusetts is one of five states this year are receiving federal funds to experiment with longer school days to boost student achievement, along with Colorado, Connecticut, New York and Tennessee. The Bay State already has 19 schools with extended learning time.

Nationwide, according to the National Center on Time and Learning, one thousand public schools, serving half-a-million American kids in 36 states, have adopted a longer school day (PDF).

Mayo-Brown says it's time to break the mold of the 19th century agrarian school calendar.

"Why can't schools go year round, with obvious breaks in between? Why can't we have a longer day?" she said. "There's really no need to continue to schedule the school year and the school day in an old model. We need to be thinking what our kids need in order to be competitive in the 21st century."

Linda Nguyen contributed to this story.