Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn is one of 13 schools that opted to introduce a longer school day beginning in September 2011. As a “pioneer,” Fiske Principal Cynthia Miller and her staff were able to design their own schedule without any constraints. But CPS leadership has signaled that when the longer day of 7 hours and 30 minutes launches district-wide, schools will have to allot a specific amount of time for teaching each subject. For the 1st grade, the district has announced that it will require 6 hours and 30 minutes of instruction, with a minimum of 4 hours and 10 minutes to be distributed as follows: reading and writing (2 hours), math (1 hour), science (40 minutes), and social studies (30 minutes). The remaining time can be distributed at the school’s discretion among core subjects and the arts, as well as a mandatory lunch and recess period.

Some parents and school staff are not sure their children need the extra time. At a January 25th Board of Education meeting, parents from 6.5 to Thrive, an advocacy group that endorses a 6-1/2 hour school day, voiced concerns. In the public participation section of the meeting, 6.5 to Thrive parent Tracy Baldwin advocated for a shorter school day. Baldwin said her organization had collected more than 900 petition signatures asking CPS to aim for 6-1/2 hours, not 7-1/2 hours.

Later at that meeting, after presenting the plan for what the district is calling the “Full School Day,” Chief Instruction Officer Jennifer Cheatham addressed the concerns parents raised. “We worked hard around designing the 7-1/2 hour day parameters around best practices,” she said. “We are thinking seriously about it.”

Jacquelyn Sticca, a 1st-grade teacher at Fiske, says it works for her. On January 18th, Catalyst visited Sticca’s classroom to see the longer day in action.

7:30 a.m.: Students begin arriving to Fiske. School officially starts at 8 o’clock, an hour earlier than last year. As part of the school day, students are fed breakfast in the cafeteria. On this day, one student arrives late, walking in the door just after 8:30 am. Though there are often some late arrivals, Sticca maintains that “the kids that were late at 9:00 a.m. are still late.”

8:15 a.m.: Students start playing a word-matching game while Sticca takes attendance and sets up the classroom. De’Ajane Brown, age 7, takes her turn at the game game on an interactive board, as her classmates read and dictate the words.

8:35 a.m.: Sticca’s students gather on the carpet for a morning meeting, a daily ritual that is used to focus students and get them ready for the day. Sticca says the earlier start gives her more time to have conversations with her students, and they talk about weekend events, share about feelings, and talk about exciting things coming up. Sticca also practices a variety of skills with her students. They count out loud together. They also go over money equivalents, taking turns creating a certain amount with different combinations of coins.

8:47 a.m.: Sticca reads the book Olivia and leads the class in a critical-thinking exercise. An hour into the day, the 1st graders have already completed several activities. Sticca says her students don’t mind the longer day; in fact, she says, “They love being here.”

9:00 a.m.: Students begin to rotate among different learning centers for about an hour and 15 minutes. Some play games at the computer center, practicing phonics and word recognition. Others put on headphones and listen to stories to work on reading fluency, while others practice word formation by making words with letters. Jalisha Crosby, age 6, and De’Ajane Brown, age 7, are at the “Buddy Reading” center, where students read books to each other.

10:34 a.m.: During the day’s writing workshop, students complete an independent, non-fiction writing exercise. Students write how-to’s, explaining the steps to a task they know how to do. Avantae Wright, age 6, writes about how to make a sandwich, while Autumn Haynes, age 6, describes the steps to making a hot-dog.

11:04 a.m.: Students break for a 20-minute lunch. Gikiya McMillian, age 6, eats her hot lunch of chicken and rice, with milk and an orange on the side. 

11:24 a.m.: After lunch, students go out for a 25-minute recess. On colder days, students remain inside in the gymnasium. Recess helps the kids “get a lot of energy out,” says Sticca. Before Fiske extended its hours, the elementary school hadn’t had recess for years.

12:02 p.m.: After lunch and recess, students have math, which “used to be harder to get through” when there wasn’t recess, Sticca says.  Michael Morris, age 7, works on addition and subtraction sentences. Sticca says she’s now able to teach math concepts in greater depth because she has more time to devote to the subject.

12:53 p.m.: Students have a science lesson about solids and liquids and go on a scavenger hunt to find examples of each. With the implementation of the longer school day, Sticca no longer has to alternate science and math every other day. As a result, in addition to science lessons, there is time for hands-on activities, Sticca says.

2:00 p.m.: Sticca’s 1st-graders have music class, one of five “specials,” with Linda Taylor. Students have one special subject each day for 60 minutes. The other subjects are Spanish, library, music, and technology. With the longer day, specials were extended from 45 minutes. On this day, the class practices singing and dancing for the upcoming school-wide concert in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.Day.  

2:41 p.m.: After music, Sticca teaches a social studies lesson. She reviews the facts they know about Martin Luther King and also reads them a book about Ruby Bridges, who was the first black student in the South to attend an all-white elementary school, in New Orleans.  

3:29 p.m.: School is dismissed and students wait outside for parents and their brothers and sisters. Jamia Hunter, age 6, waits to be picked up. The school day used to end at 2:45 pm, and, initially, parents were concerned about how the longer day would impact their schedules. Sticca insists that “I’ve yet to have a problem with a parent coming from work.” To ensure students spend time on lessons at home, on Mondays Sticca assigns a weekly homework packet that often includes having students complete activities with their families.  

Before the longer school day, says Sticca, “It felt like we were on a stopwatch. Lengthening the day has changed our world.”

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