The Southampton Board of Education voted on Tuesday night to reject a $2.6 million state grant that would have extended the school year for elementary and intermediate students by 300 hours, most likely by expanding the typical school day.
The decision came less than a week after the district hosted a community forum at which several parents spoke against accepting the grant, citing concerns about whether students would be able to handle spending so much time in the classroom, and whether a longer school day—as much as an hour and 40 minutes longer—would detract from time with family and friends.
At the meeting on Tuesday night, several School Board members shared their own concerns with the community, saying an extended day program would take considerable resources to implement by next year, and expressing doubts that the program could be sustained after the grant expires two years from now.
Instead, board members say they will spend the next several months focusing on ways to close the achievement gap between groups of students within the district, relative to other districts, by taking advantage of the resources the district already has.
“This made me very concerned,” School Board President Heather McCallion said of the grant. “I feel that we need our top administrators to be focused on our students now, and I don’t think I want to put off for a year what we can be accomplishing this year.”
The $2.6 million grant is part of the Extended Learning Time initiative from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, and is dedicated to closing achievement gaps across the state. At the community forum last week, Dr. Nicholas Dyno, the assistant superintendent for instruction, said the district was eligible for the grant based on its socioeconomic makeup and on recent state test scores. If the district had accepted the grant, it would have been used to expand instruction in English language arts and mathematics.
Board members had a roughly half-hour discussion on Tuesday night, before voting 6-1, with Robert Hunter dissenting, in favor of rejecting the grant. Key concerns among board members were having kids spend so much time in the classrooms and whether the schedule changes would be sustainable once the grant expires in two years. Now, the district will look for other ways to expand the amount of time students spend actually learning, with District Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina saying the concept of extending the school day is solid, just not the right fit at the moment.
“Having a longer day does still have some appeal,” Dr. Farina said. “If we could say spend an extra hour here, and your students will come home free and clear, that is appealing to some people. The idea of extending the day is not a bad idea—this grant just has too many strings attached to it.”
At a community forum last week, district officials and an independent specialist, Michael Selkis of the National Center on Time and Learning, had few answers for concerned parents who wanted to know exactly what their children’s day would look like should the district accept the grant. The specialist and officials said those questions would be answered as the district moved through its “evaluation phase” over the next few months.
“I think that the lack of specific data on how to extend the school day by an hour and 45 minutes in one year, and how that will affect student achievement—there is just not a lot of data out there,” Dr. Farina said. “That was what this grant was for, to see how it does affect student achievement. The other thing is the sustainability, I am worried about that. For some grants, the sustainability piece is built into it, but that did not turn out to be the case with this grant.”
If the district had accepted the grant, the amount of time students spent in school would have increased by 300 hours a year over the course of 180 days, meaning adding an hour and 40 minutes to each school day, or extending the school year later into June.
“We are looking for opportunities for the district,” Dr. Dyno said last week. “We wanted to come up with ways to improve test scores, wanted to come up with a way to provide enrichment during the school day, and we wanted students to be able to make choices and get all of the opportunities we have to offer without taking away from our core academics.”
Last week, many district parents spoke against the grant, saying that while the district needs to find ways to improve education, extending the day was not the way to do it.
One parent, Robert Herrmann, expressed his concern about the proposal, saying it seemed to be based on centering the students’ entire lives on the school district. He said his family barely had enough time as it is to balance school, after-school soccer, family time and all of the work teachers are now requesting after school hours.
“This sounds like an approach that becomes very centered around the school and the district, but this is a big community,” he said. “Where in God’s name do you think you are going to extract another two hours from this kid’s life?”
“The status quo for Southampton needs to change,” Dr. Farina had said at the community forum. “We can do better, and looking at every opportunity for how we can educate our kids better is our responsibility. We are not going to force this down anyone’s throats, but this is just one discussion.”