Despite President Obama’s loftiest hopes to extend the number of school days per year, many schools are actually having to decrease them because of severe budget cuts. While the number of school days in other countries exceeds 200, they’re being cut further in the U.S. to fewer than 180.

With families that have access to enrichment programs and encourage learning online at home, the discrepancy can be filled. But for low-income kids who don’t have those opportunities, fewer school days puts them at an even greater disadvantage.

For these kids, the nonprofit organization Citizen Schools attempts to fill that gap. The organization works with low-income students in low-performing middle schools across the country to, in essence, lengthen the learning day by “bringing in a second shift of educators who work with students,” says Stacey Gilbert, the organization’s spokesperson.

That means that every student stays an extra three hours per day, four days a week, working on everything from language arts and math to art and P.E. in project-based groups. (Fridays are used for staff development.)

Here’s what that looks like:

The organization also recruits “citizen teachers” from local businesses to teach 11-week apprenticeships about different kinds of careers through hands-on projects.

What’s the impact of this intensive program? There are the tangible outcomes: 20 percent higher high-school graduation rates; 9 out of 10 Citizen Schools students passed state math and English exams; and students attend seven more weeks of school than their peers in low-performing schools.

But more importantly, the intangible results, as Gilbert describes it:

“Things like attitudes, beliefs, if they’re feeling good about their schooling,” she says. “A big part of what we found to be successful is that, hands-on project-based learning in middle school students in particular, and students overall, gets them excited about school. It makes those longer school days work. If you’re asking them to stay an additional three hours everyday, what are you doing that’s engaging to them over the longer day?”

Their long-terms studies are showing that not only students are doing better in school, but that the most at-risk kids are actually going on to high school. “What we want for them is to excel beyond middle school and to get off to a good start in high school, succeed there, and graduate from high school,” Gilbert said.

When it comes to preventing dropouts at the crucial middle-school level, Gilbert thinks the longer school day is a good solution. “We know that middle school is an important time, when they decide if schools are for them,” she said. “We’re seeing some success in a number of charter schools and traditional district schools that have extended learning times. That’s because the kids have the extra time to get really engaged. They have more flexibility to learn what they’re interested in by doing things that have been cut out because of the focus on test scores.”

Students spend time in enrichment programs, in P.E. classes, social studies, science and other areas.  And through the apprenticeship programs, they learn about careers in science, business, journalism, even photography and art. For instance, Google engineers help students build websites. They’ll take field trips to colleges. “They’re given the opportunity to talk to people who they wouldn’t have the chance to talk with otherwise,” she said. “They ask questions like, what kinds of courses should I be taking, what’s an AP course, what’s the pathway for me? Access to these kinds of people is a big piece.”

But aren’t kids tired by 6 o’clock at night?

“I’m sure there are days that seem longer than others,” Gilbert said. “But if the programming is really high quality and does what we want it to do, then kids have energy and are enthusiastic. Just like any other school day. It could be 10 in the morning, and if this activity isn’t enough to keep their attention, they can’t focus, they’re tired, and it’s up to us to make sure we’re meeting those high quality standards.”

As a movement, the Extended Learning Time initiative has gained momentum recently. The Massachusetts Extended Learning Time Initiative has been closely surveying progress of these kinds of programs and is showing success.

“As a litany of indicators attests, the length of the current school day is insufficient to meet the needs of students, especially those from low-income backgrounds. With just 20% of their waking hours in school, many students are desperate for more time to learn,” said Eric Schwarz, co-founder and CEO of Citizen Schools. “The idea of creating more time for learning is gaining currency, especially as standards-based reforms within the conventional school day delivered exclusively by conventional teachers have mostly failed to deliver lasting gains. As expanded learning time gains momentum, the country has an opportunity that might come along once in a generation – an opportunity to dramatically change the way we structure the learning day.

Read more about Citizen Schools’ Joe Ross’s vision of the Future School Day.

Watch this comprehensive video, produced by Edutopia, for a comprehensive overview of the program.

  • Therbert

    I think this is a great idea. Teachers are struggling to meet regulations and offer a good education. It just seems that there are not enough hours in the day to do both. There is a growing sentiment on standardized test scores as a reflection of good teaching practices. Teachers and administrators are losing their jobs based on these scores. A curriculum that only focuses on improving test scores would ultimately provide students with a mediocre education. Extending the day gives teachers time to make education exciting, gives students structured academic activities, and would allow teachers to teach a diverse curriculum while meeting regulations.

  • cindy

    While I agree longer school days would provide more adequate time to expand upon lessons, what I am seeing in this schedule is a four day school week. If that is accurate and the standard, then kids are really getting about the same amount of minutes taught, just in 4 days instead of 5. I am not sure that this then qualifies as better. I am a proponent of Staff Development time. I would like to see more examples as “proof” that this is the way to go.

    • CS

      Hey Cindy,

      Thanks for your interest. I work for CS and came across this article (which is great!). The way it works is that we extend the school day with a second shift of teachers and volunteers Mon-Thurs and then (at most campuses) students have a regular length day on Friday. So they have 8-9 hour days Mon-Thurs and a regular 6-7 hour day on Friday. Check out this site for more on our results Hope this helps!!

  • CorinneGregory

    The article seems to imply that “more time” is better. However, that’s an oversimplification. The reality is that lack of engagement has little to do with the amount of time as it does what happens in the time students are in the classroom.

    Currently students are routinely losing as much as 25/30/50% of what should be learning time because of disruptive and unruly classmates. This is the equivalent of 45-60 full DAYS out of our standard 180-day school calendar year. Decreasing lost time in the classroom is not only practical and realistic, it can be done within the existing (and decreasing) budgets. Before we start talking about “supplemental solutions,” perhaps we should take a hard and honest look at what’s happening with the “schooling” we have.

    For more on this topic, I encourage you to visit

    – Corinne Gregory

    • Saucedo Ubaldo

      i think is bad idea because there be more school drop outs

  • I agree that more time will help students with learning. I’m not averse to an 8-9 hour day, but what about the 3-month summer vacation and the accompanying “summer slide?” Some schools are extending the school year, and I think this is an excellent idea.

  • My 2 daughters get 171 school days. I do work with them on academic skills to prevent learning loss around winter, spring, and summer breaks not to mention surrounding holiday weeks. However, how can they compete with children who do get 220 days of school every year. Over the lifetime of a K-12 education this can accumulate to 650 days of school (over 3 years more of preparation). This does not even take into account the additional hours in a school day oversees which can be 3-4 hours longer than our US 6-7 hour max school days. How can we compete globally?
    Erika Burton, Ph.D.
    Stepping Stones Together, Founder
    Empowering parental involvement in early literacy programs

  • Jeanne-thomas

    What about the low income area of the central valley San Juaquinn & Stanislaus areas

  • Exhausted

    School for me is brutal. I am an honors student with all A’s. I begin school at 7 am and don’t finish my last class until 4:15 (no exaggeration). When I get home I usually have so much homework that I do not get to bed until 1 or 2. It is no better on the weekends. Most weekends I do not even go outside. Instead, I spend them completing papers, essays, and studying for tests. Why does school have to be so hard? When my parents went to school they did not even have to take half the classes I take right now and still got into universities that most students nowadays could only dream of.

    • Jennifer

      “Kids have the extra time to get really engaged. “

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor