Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School (OGPS) opened in 2003 amidst much fanfare. Its $30 million building represented a large-scale effort to revitalize one of Boston’s poorest communities. But for its first seven years, OGPS was plagued by low academic performance and high staff turnover. From 2003 to 2010, Orchard Gardens proficiency rates on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) stagnated below 20 percent in both English Language Arts (ELA) and math. “The best this school had ever done in the past was getting one-fifth of our students to proficiency,” says Toby Romer, the school’s director of professional development and data inquiry.
Due to its poor achievement history, Orchard Gardens was designated for turnaround status in April 2010. With an innovative plan centered on additional classroom time for all students and staff, the school has demonstrated impressive gains in just one year. While school-wide proficiency rates are still low overall, student growth in both English Language Arts (ELA) and math—as measured by the 2011 MCAS performance—was among the highest in the state, with a 10 percent jump in ELA and 16 percent in math from the previous year. As students and teachers gear up for 2012 assessments this spring, school leaders are anticipating another dramatic jump in performance.
Today, with additional time in their school day, Orchard Gardens’ students receive instruction rich in both depth and breadth. “One of the biggest reasons for my students’ success was the extended period of time with them,” says Ben Rockoff, the school’s seventh-grade math teacher. In 2011, the median student in Rockoff’s math classes ranked at the 92nd percentile among all Massachusetts seventh-grade students; only three seventh-grade math classrooms in the state demonstrated greater improvement. The expanded day also allows teachers—many of whom were new to the school in 2011—to devote time to setting clear expectations at the beginning of the year. Says Kellie Njenga, one of only two current staff members who have been at OGPS since its opening in 2003, “Compared to previous years, the biggest difference this year is the culture. We devoted a lot of time at the beginning of the year to teaching procedures and establishing a consistent set of expectations.” Today, visitors from the school system regularly remark that Orchard Gardens feels like a new school. An expanded school schedule has benefited teachers as well, providing them not only more time with their students, but more time for teacher collaboration and data analysis. “Collecting, analyzing, and actually planning around data requires a lot of time,” says Romer. “Setting aside time each week to do that was really important for our teachers to teach at a high level.”
As policymakers and educators continue to grapple with the compelling challenge of remaking our nation’s underperforming schools, many are realizing that an expanded school schedule for teachers and students offers tremendous promise. Orchard Gardens is an example of the transformative impact a longer school day can have when time is used effectively and in concert with other important reform measures.
More Time for Focused Academics and a Well-Rounded Education
In the 2010-2011 school year, one hour was added each day for students in grades K to 5 and 8, and four hours for students in grades 6 and 7. For all students, the new school day created more time for ELA and math, with 110 minutes for each period in 2010 compared to only 75 minutes in 2009. Longer periods allowed teachers to work more closely with individual and small groups of students, as well as cover more material throughout the year.
In addition to more time for core academics, the expanded day includes more time for academic supports and enrichment courses — including art, theater, dance, music, Mandarin, and physical education. From 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, sixth and seventh graders also receive homework support, math instruction, apprenticeship opportunities, and college-readiness courses offered by Citizens Schools, a major partner of Orchard Gardens. Although the school day for students in grades K to 5 and 8th grade ends at 2:30 every day, many stay after school. Staff from City Year — an AmeriCorps program that supports schools across the country — tutor approximately 30 students in the 8th grade after school. Younger students also receive after school tutoring from their classroom teachers, while a number of other students in grades K to 5 are enrolled in enrichment programs after school.
“The existing schedule just wouldn’t have allowed us to both make the gains we wanted to make academically and educate kids in ways that aren’t measured by MCAS,” says Romer. Jessica, who began attending Orchard Gardens in 2008, as a fourth-grade student, explains, “The longer day gives me time to do homework, I have classes that I’d never had before, and it gives me more time to be with my friends.”
More Time for Teacher Development and Data Analysis
The longer day gives teachers additional time for both instruction and collaboration. Although the actual teacher work week has been extended by five hours, teachers only teach an additional four hours compared to years past; the remaining time is devoted to planning and teacher collaboration. During the 2010- 2011 school year, teachers began to meet weekly both in grade level and content teams. Content team meetings last 100 minutes and follow a highly structured protocol intended to focus teachers solely on data analysis and instructional strategies. “The data inquiry process is meant to be very teacher-driven,” says Romer. “Grade and content level teams are always allowed and encouraged to make their own decisions about instruction, but we want to establish the processes by which they respond to data so they can align strategies with what they know about their students.” Each week, teachers also meet in grade level teams for 50 minutes to discuss administrative and discipline issues. “We thought setting aside two separate times would help teachers focus only on the data and instruction during the 100-minute planning period,” says Romer.
In addition to weekly collaboration meetings, Orchard Gardens also schedules 127 hours of professional development throughout the year—compared to only 30 hours at other Boston Public Schools. While Orchard Gardens has always had more professional development time compared to other Boston Public Schools, the time was often misspent. In 2011, the school made a number of changes in its delivery of professional development to better respond to teacher needs, including relying on its own teachers to lead sessions.
Looking Back and Ahead
Undoubtedly, transforming our nation’s lowest performing and most dysfunctional schools requires more than just additional time. In fact, layering additional time on top of significant management problems and instructional deficiencies can be futile or counterproductive. But when additional time is combined with other important reforms such as replacing ineffective leaders and teachers, building a more positive school culture, improving instruction, and integrating frequent and effective use of data, more time can have an important catalyzing and reinforcing impact on the transformation effort. In 2010, Orchard Gardens was able to effectively leverage expanded time to improve school culture, data analysis, and instruction in ways it could never have done within the confines of the traditional school day. At Orchard Gardens, increased learning time was a catalyst behind the school’s improvement model, which consists of four interactive components:
- Time: More time for rigorous academic instruction, engaging activities, and teacher collaboration
- People: Significant improvements in human capital by recruiting, hiring, and developing staff
- Data: Intensive use of data to drive improvements in instruction and respond to individual student learning needs
- School Culture: Dramatic changes to school-wide behavioral and academic expectations
While the school has dramatically improved in just one year, Orchard Gardens is still far from attaining its ultimate goal: 90 percent proficient or above for all students in both ELA and math by the 2014-2015 school year. But with a longer school day, stronger leaders and teachers, and a more positive school culture, it is well on the way to becoming a true success story.
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