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Obama's extended school plan faces obstacles on LI

Mrs. Sgambati's first-grade students listen at Evergreen Charter

Mrs. Sgambati's first-grade students listen at Evergreen Charter School in Hempstead. (September 10, 2009) Photo Credit: Joel Cairo

On Election Day, Nov. 3, when most Long Island students will be kept home, Hempstead's Evergreen Charter School plans to maintain its usual extended schedule.

Students' day there will begin with a 7:20 a.m. breakfast, followed by classes and supervised homework that will continue for some youngsters until parents pick them up at 5:45 in the afternoon.

Principal Rosa Escoto sees extended learning time as crucial for her school's 95 students, many of whom speak limited English.

"The school year, the way it is, is kind of short for the kids," Escoto said. "And during the summer, they lose so much."

For decades, school reformers have called, without much success, for longer school days and years, as a means of helping the nation's students keep up with counterparts overseas.

President Ronald Reagan's education advisers raised the issue more than a quarter-century ago, in their highly publicized "Nation at Risk" report. Now, President Barack Obama is pushing a similar message, that "the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

But on the Island, obstacles to extended school time are daunting - more so than in other parts of the country, experts say.

For starters, there's a shortage of air-conditioned classrooms that would make studies tolerable, either in July or August. Add to that the time constrictions of most teacher contracts, the lack of new tax revenue to pay for longer work schedules, the resistance of summer-camp operators to lose customers, and the reluctance of families to give up traditional summer vacations.

One regional analyst, Lawrence Levy of Hofstra University, sees the Island's division into 124 school districts as a particular obstacle to extended school calendars and other controversial innovations.

"No school district is going to want to be the first to eliminate summer vacations," said Levy, executive director of Hofstra's National Center for Suburban Studies.

Not that local districts haven't recognized the need for more learning time. Since the mid-1990s, most high schools on the Island that didn't already operate nine periods a day have added time to their schedules in order to adopt such formats.

On top of that, a few districts and their unions have moved beyond the state's minimum requirement of a 180-day school year. Baldwin provides 182 days of classes; Amityville and Jericho both provide 184.

Such extensions have not proved universally popular, however. Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools, one of the nation's highest-rated systems, says he can always count on getting a few angry calls from parents whenever classes there open before Labor Day, as they did this year.

"Are you out of your minds?" the callers want to know.

Most local educators don't see a need to impose longer academic years on all students. Rather, they say, the main goal should be to provide more time to those requiring substantial extra help.

Research supports this view. In the early 1990s, a University of Missouri professor, Harris Cooper, analyzed results of more than 90 studies that looked at the amount of academic knowledge lost by students during the summer months, even when enrolled in summer classes.

One finding from Cooper's often-cited report: Middle-class students managed to maintain their reading skills over the summer, presumably, because they received quality summer instruction. Poorer students experienced steep declines in reading skills that widened the gap between them and classmates, and persisted during the following school year.

Jeff Rozran, president of Syosset's teacher union and a board member of the New York State United Teachers organization, says extended class time works only when delivered effectively to those who really need it.

"If a school is broken, why would you want longer time?" he said.

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