In an impoverished corner of Phoenix, just north of Sky Harbor International Airport, the first school district in Arizona to adopt a 200-day calendar is reporting impressive academic improvements after only one year.
"Reading scores went up 19 percent in grades 3 and 4 last year," says Supt. Jeffrey Smith of the Balsz Elementary School District (BESD ). "In grades 5 and 6, scores increased 43 percent. And in our highest performing school, 85 percent of 6th graders met or exceeded in reading. All of our schools are now considered 'performing' or higher. This is a terrific achievement, considering our population."
As recently as the 2008-2009 school year, two of BESD's five schools were labeled "under-performing" by the state, and another was in danger of corrective action. Challenges facing the administration included 90 percent of the K8 population qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, and nearly half of all students being English language learners.
"Disadvantaged students, when compared to their more advantaged peers, learn just as well during the course of the year," Smith says. "Where they really lose ground is during the extended summer break. We needed to reduce that summer slide."
A Call to Action
First, Smith met with the local school board about lengthening the school year. After a months-long, widely inclusive decision-making process involving recommendations from committees at every school, a majority of parents and teachers supported the board's decision to extend the school year by 20 days, putting them on par with schools in Australia, Singapore and many European countries.
Funding for the extra month, which required a 9 percent pay hike for teachers, came from voter-approved school taxes, federal stimulus money, and a never tapped Arizona law that increases per-pupil funding by 5 percent for districts willing to extend to 200 days. Additional grant money is likely, now that test scores are rising, Smith says, adding that "businesses, foundations and nonprofit organizations want to support what works."
BESD Board President Fred Andersen recalls that under the old calendar, students used to go on "mental vacation" in the scant three weeks that remained after state-sponsored standardized testing each spring. "Now we have almost two months of school afterward. Once the tests were over last year, everyone took a deep breath and pushed on right to the end."
New Year, New Challenges
The district is facing a new test now that Arizona is at the epicenter of the national debate on immigration. When more than 500 out of 2,800 students were absent on the first day of school, officials theorized that many fearful Spanish-speaking parents had fled to other states and Mexico because of the state's controversial new SB 1070 legislation. Fortunately, as legal battles have continued, hundreds of children have returned to school.
Regardless of fluctuating enrollment, the Balsz District has made a long-term commitment to the 200-day calendar. In fact, Jeffrey Smith says he expects a longer year to become common in the United States one day: "I believe that it's inevitable. If we are serious about being globally competitive—and we need to be—then we need to consider how much time and how many resources we're putting into an educational system."
Smith is eager to share his district's experiences, encouraging administrators exploring the idea of a longer year to contact him. "Whether or not you actually do it, if you're really serious about raising student achievement, then it's a good conversation to have," he says.