The sixth-graders are learning the vocabulary of earthquakes, leaning over their textbooks during a 45-minute science class. Later in the week, the 18 Grant Elementary students will run an earthquake simulation, integrating their newfound vocabulary.
As class ends, Ryan Foley, their teacher, calls them over.
“If you can talk about it, you know it,” Foley said. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
The class, and in some ways Foley’s focus on comprehension, is a direct offshoot of Spokane Public Schools’ extended school day, which went into effect in September.
The change added 30 minutes to elementary school days – or just under three school weeks of additional instruction time each year. Nearly 90 percent of schools have used the extra time to focus on science, said Matthew Henshaw, director for elementary education.
“I think it creates a well-rounded education, a more holistic education,” said Spokane Public Schools board President Deana Brower. “Philosophically it was something that the board believed in.”
Henshaw said studies showed that a longer school day translated to better academic achievement, and that the Spokane district had much shorter school days than other districts in Washington.
“We couldn’t find another district (in Washington) with a shorter school day, quite frankly,” he said.
Grant Elementary Principal Ivan Corley said teachers and kids have found the extra time useful. Grant Elementary chose to use the extra time to focus on science.
“Kids are really, really excited,” he said. “For our kids to go deeper you need time. When they do a lab or an experiment they have the opportunity to test the thinking.”
Corley added that at Grant Elementary many students would be first-generation high school graduates or first-generation college graduates.
“It’s truly paramount in helping them succeed,” he said.
Grant students have science instruction with Foley for 45 minutes two times a week. This reduces set-up time and allows students to dive directly into experiments and lab work. Although homeroom teachers still teach some science, Foley covers the majority of it.
Foley, who started teaching in the district last year, said “science has been marginalized.” The new schedule helps fix that, he said.
While most elementary schools have used the extra time to focus on science, Regal Elementary is using it for reading and writing. Principal Tricia Kannberg said the school was lagging when it came to writing and reading skills, which informed its focus.
“Through writing we are hitting all content areas,” Kannberg said, adding, “I’m very happy with it. I do believe we are having an impact on our school community.”
The writing and reading class, like Grant’s science class, is taught by a content specialist. Students spend one hour and 20 minutes every week in the class.
“What’s nice about that extended time, she is able to really delve deep,” Kannberg said of the teacher.
The schedule change also allowed the district to deal with a pernicious problem, one that Brower said the board was aware of for quite some time: middle school students waiting a long time for their buses after school. This was because elementary schools previously ended at 3 p.m. and middle schools ended at 3:15. The buses serve both student populations, Henshaw said, and couldn’t finish their elementary school routes in time to pick up middle schoolers when their school day ended. With the added school day, the district also pushed the middle school end time back by 15 minutes.
“The situation allowed us to correct a few issues at once,” Brower said.
With the new 8:30 a.m. start times, the district has also built in extra time for students to eat breakfast. Henshaw said the buses try to arrive at the schools by 8:10 a.m. Additionally, both Henshaw and Corley said the extra time gives teachers a little more space to improvise and respond to their classes’ needs.
“I think schools feel they have a little more flexibility so if they feel that students need a break they can fit it in,” Henshaw said. “We want to encourage and provide more options to families.”
State rules that went into effect this school year requires K-6 students to spend at least 1,000 hours in school each year. Spokane Public Schools’ K-6 students will have 1,075 hours this year.
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