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Ed department may propose more time in school for some — not all — Iowa students

James Q. Lynch, CR Gazette –

ANKENY — The Iowa Department of Education will likely propose extended school time for some — but not all — school children as it puts together the 2013 education reform package.

“I think the need is there, as the research this morning showed, for certain groups that are in need of this, and you target your efforts there and they respond well,” said Mike Cormack, policy liaison with the department. He said the research had more mixed results when extended school time was applied to all students.

Cormack was one of about four dozen people who attended a day-long symposium Wednesday put on by the Iowa Afterschool Alliance at the Des Moines Area Community College campus in Ankeny. The forum covered some of the latest research and policy concerning outside-of-school programming for students.

The verdict: extending the school day or school year is an expensive, but often popular, reform proposal that works in some cases, but not all.

Joe Davis, who serves as chief operating officer of the Florida Afterschool Network, said more seat time doesn’t necessarily translate into greater academic achievement for students.

“Doing the same thing that is only marginally working right now might not be the smartest thing, but if it was the only thing that was out there right now, it might not be a bad thing,” Davis said. “But it’s not the only thing we have out there.”

Iowa, like the majority of states, requires 180 days of classes each school year. The state also requires 5.5 hours of instructional time a day, or 27.5 per week.

Proponents of longer school days or years point to international tests on which students score higher than their American counterparts. In Singapore, for example, the school year is 40 weeks (roughly 280 days); in Korea, it’s 220 days; and in the Netherlands, the average school year is 200 days, according to the most recent data available from the International Review of Curriculum and Assessment, based in the United Kingdom.

Dave Welter, principal at Holmes Junior High School in Cedar Falls, said about 200 of the school’s 500 students attend the after-school program each week.

“We’ve found the work that it has been doing is creating less attendance issues, behavior issues, and grades have dramatically improved,” Welter said. “We try to target interests the kids have, and those are ever-changing, as a hook to get them into the program.”

He tells a story about a student who was very interested in video games but uninterested in academics until Welter introduced him to 8monkey Labs, a tech firm in Cedar Falls.

“They saw the owners of that company in a circle, interacting, with graphics, mathematics, engineering and everything it took to make a video game. And they got to participate in the video game and that developed into an internship in the summer,” Welter said. “You talk about turning a kid on to school … When you find out what a kid’s interests are, you begin to match them up with community resources where you can feed on that interest. That’s our philosophy of the after-school program.”

Cormack said a specific proposal to the Iowa Legislature is due Oct. 15. Between now and then, a task force needs to be formed and will meet at least three times to discuss options for after-school and extended learning programs in Iowa.

“It’s not that we won’t be more open-minded to all things that are on the table, but, so far, the belief of the director, myself and, hopefully, those looking into this, is how can we get the biggest bang for the buck and how can we impact kids that are most in need,” he said. “I think there has been a lot of public momentum in both length of school year and when it starts and how long it should go, and it will be good to get a group of Iowans together to study that and look at it.”

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