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Long School Year Makes Sense to Low-Income Parents

THE WASHINGTON POST

The students of Moton Elementary School were lined up early on July 10, in their uniform khaki shorts and carrying yellow book bags. It was hot and humid on the first day of school.

It was the third time pupils at Moton and nearby Lockett Elementary School had begun their 11-month terms, the longest public school calendars in the land.

With the consent of the Orleans Parish School Board, they are pioneers in a schedule that many educators have advocated since the 1980s but rarely have tried because it is costly and unpopular with the public.

This year, the extra two months of classes at the two air-conditioned schools are expected to use up almost $900,000 in local and federal funds, mostly to cover a 20% increase in salaries.

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So far, the academic results of keeping a longer school year, at least as measured by standardized tests, have not been impressive.

During the term that ended in June, Moton’s third-graders made slight gains in language and mathematics, but fifth-graders slipped in both areas. At Lockett, the pattern was reversed: the fifth-graders improved and third-graders faltered.

School officials say it would be hard to expect overnight success with the all-black schools, which were selected for the experiment precisely because their problems were so great. Almost all of the 1,500 pupils are poor, and most live in one of two dismal housing projects nearby.

“It seems to me children who have less need more,” said Dwight McKenna, a school board member who pushed for the experiment.

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Moton teachers said they have seen some gains in self-confidence and in the most basic skills, such as writing a sentence. With the shorter break, teachers said, their pupils forgot less of what they had learned and needed only a few days of review, instead of the customary month or two.

The schools have overcome one obstacle that tripped up an experimental 10-month school year in Polk County, N.C. in the 1980s: opposition from parents wedded to vacation schedules and afraid that too much school would overwhelm their children.

Moton and Lockett parents tend to view school as a safe haven for their children from the violence, crime and idleness in the housing projects where most live. Several years ago, a Moton fourth-grader was murdered in the massive Desire project. He had been a runner for drug dealers.

Less than two hours before Moton classes reopened in July, police found a dead man lying face down in the Desire project five blocks from the school. He had been shot many times.

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“If they’re not in school doing positive things, no telling what can happen,” said Stephanie Youngblood, who lives in Desire and is president of the Moton PTA.

“Outsiders can’t come in (the school) and interrupt any time they want,” said Roosevelt D. Iley, who considers his two children “real safe . . . as long as they’re at school.”

Most Moton pupils interviewed said they like the longer school year, an attitude that officials said has led to improved attendance and behavior.

“I was glad to get out of my house because it’s boring,” said Donnieka Rhinehart, a fifth-grader from Desire. “I barely go outside, because they start too much of a mess. . . . They pick fights.”

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The long school year was optional for parents and teachers alike, but only a few of each chose transfer to another school.

Moton, which cost $6 million to build in 1986, is on Abundance Street over a former city dump. The modern brick structure presents a cool, clean contrast to the decaying Desire project, where 40% of 1,840 apartments are vacant and there is no central air conditioning.

Inside Moton, every classroom has carpeting and closed-circuit television. Most have a computer terminal and a sink for science projects.

“This is an uplift for them, coming out of that,” said Elvira Henry, a second-grade teacher, referring to Desire.

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To finance the longer school year, Moton and Lockett dropped uncertified classroom aides who were paid through the federal Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged students. Most of the $870,000 budget comes from that program; the school district provided $290,000.

President Bush this summer signed legislation establishing a National Commission on Time and Learning to study extending the school year. The typical American term of 180 days--compared to 220 days at Moton or Lockett--is much shorter than those kept in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Bush has suggested that a longer school year be tried at model “new American schools” he wants to see incorporated into his education strategy.


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