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Time Is On Their Side

A Massachusetts school has figured out how to make longer days work for everyone.

Found in: School Life 

While students from neighboring schools are still finishing up their bowls of cereal or running out the door to meet the bus, students at Ferryway in Malden, Massachusetts, a working-class city just north of Boston, are already at their desks, embarking on a new day of learning.

Ferryway is a K-8 school in its fourth year of Expanded Learning Time (ELT), a grant program overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Education that extends total school time over the year by at least 300 hours. While other district schools are in session from 8:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., Ferryway's day starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m.


Photo by Richard Howard

“Kids used to be rushed,” says eighth-grade language arts teacher Elaine Ivy, who now has a 90-minute block every day. “Forty minutes for a class is too short, and it winds up being just 30 minutes after you get them settled into their desks for the lesson. Now we’ve slowed the process down, and class is more like a relaxed country drive where they can absorb what they’re learning versus being stuck in rush hour traffic where they’re in a hurry but not getting anywhere.”

Across the country, from Chicago to Houston to Washington, D.C., schools are experimenting with longer days to raise achievement. Massachusetts, which launched its extended school day program in 2005, is a pioneer and Ferryway is one of 19 public schools participating.

ELT is designed by staff and administrators, supported by the union (not only because teachers help design the extended day, but because they are paid for the extra time), and funded by the state, which administers grants to participating schools.

To receive a grant, schools must devise a schedule that includes longer periods devoted to core subjects like math, science, and language arts as well as enrichment opportunities and time for teacher collaboration and planning.

At Ferryway, the administration and staff created a block schedule that gives students 90 minutes a day for core subjects. They also have a different one-hour “exploratory” class each day—art, music, or computers. While students are in those classes, the rest of the teaching staff meets for planning.


Photo by Richard Howard

“One of the best things about ELT is the built-in planning time,” says Margaret Briatico (pictured left), who is the team leader of the school’s fifth-grade teachers. “Each grade has a team of teachers who meet for an hour every day to discuss test data, necessary interventions for students, and curriculum issues. We’re no longer working in isolation. We now have professional learning communities.”

Language arts teacher Elaine Ivy agrees that with ELT, she and her colleagues work together in new ways.

“If I need more time on a particular day, I can ask the other teachers on my team if I can extend my block, and they can do the same,” she says. “With the team approach, collaboration has increased by leaps and bounds.”

If you ask art teacher Breanne Mahoney what she likes best about ELT, it’s no surprise that she says the enrichment opportunities. Not only do students have exploratory classes each day, they can also take band and chorus as electives. For the past two years, they’ve also been offered a cutting-edge digital media class, which Mahoney team teaches with fellow art teacher Courtney Gould.

The ELT grant also requires schools to forge partnerships. One, with Adobe Youth Voices—the Adobe software company program that empowers underserved youth to tell their stories using 21st-century tools—makes the digital media class possible for seventh and eighth graders. The elective meets every day during the school’s reading workshop block, and students work on projects that range from the personal, like a digital self-portrait collage, to the global, like a stop-motion animated film on industrialization.

“In this class, kids who normally wouldn’t speak up can find their voice and express themselves,” says Mahoney.

Finding a voice to express oneself is especially important for the school’s many English language learner (ELL) students. Malden is a melting pot of immigrants where more than 50 languages are spoken. Cultures range from Irish, Haitian, Greek, and Italian to Dominican, Somalian, Brazilian, and Chinese.

“We’ve got kids from every continent except for Antarctica,” says Ferryway Principal Thomas DeVito. “Malden is an international city. Diversity is part of the culture of Malden, and part of the culture of our school.”

Ferryway also has a significant low-income population, with more than 70 percent of students on the free or reduced-price lunch program. Schools with high numbers of ELL and low-income students tend to underperform on assessments, and that was the case at Ferryway for many years.


Photo by Richard Howard

Ferryway opened its doors in 1999 with two principals—one for K–4, the other for grades 5–8. Two years later, both principals were gone and DeVito was promoted from vice principal. It wasn’t an easy transition. Ferryway was one of the state’s lowest performing schools.

“Things were a mess,” he says. “We had high numbers of special education students, low test scores, and low morale.”

DeVito’s goal was to get the staff to think of Ferryway not as two separate schools, but as one K–8 school where everyone was responsible for its successes and failures. He secured a Reading First Grant and changed the way literacy was taught in K–5 grades, and refocused the school on language arts and math to bring up test scores. Then the ELT grant allowed the school to maintain its focus on core academics without sacrificing the arts and other creative work.

“As a result, there’s been a real sense of purpose here. Everyone has rolled up their sleeves, and we’re turning the whole school around,” DeVito says. “ELT accelerated the process, but it’s not a silver bullet. It gave us the flexibility with more time in the day, but you still need staff dedication, time spent poring over data, attention to practice, and giving students the interventions they need to really succeed.”

Succeed they have. This fall, Ferryway was one of 127 schools statewide commended for narrowing student performance gaps and demonstrating strong gains on state assessments. Ferryway is now near the top among all the schools in the district.

“The fruits are really starting to show,” says DeVito. “Just getting on that list is incredible. It shows everyone how far we’ve come.”

Finding a Voice in Digital Media

“I’m usually a shy person, but being in the media class has helped me make new friends,” says Jeffry Georges, 14, a student in Ferryway School’s digital media class, an elective offered to seventh and eighth graders through the Adobe Youth Voices program. “We shared our artwork with each other, and got ideas on how to improve it. We relied on each other to design and finish our projects, and by the end of the year, it felt like a family because we spent so much time together.”

Each student in the digital media class completes a video project on a topic of their choice: Jeffry came up with, “Dreamers,” which would explore how people pursue their personal dreams. It was an idea that resonated with Jeffry, who was pursuing his own dreams in the digital media class.

When he first pitched his movie to the other students, he admits he was pretty nervous.

“But by the end of the pitch I was more confident with sharing my idea, and speaking in front of people,” he says. “I became focused on one thing, which was to explain what my movie would be about. Seeing my new friends in the audience while I presented my idea helped.” 

The class decided on a group project rather than separate ones. They wrote a script called “The Friendship Tree” that examines industrialization and its impact on nature, while celebrating how friendships can galvanize a community. 

Using stop-motion animation, the film shows a tree in an empty lot surrounded by skyscrapers, clogged roadways, and factories belching out pollution. Newspaper headlines say the tree will be cut down to make room for more buildings, but by the end of the film, the Friendship Tree is saved in a newly cleaned up “Friends Forever Park.” The once brown, leafless tree suddenly flourishes with greenery, and at the very end, a shiny red apple begins to grow.

Jeffry is listed second in the film’s credits as the “Digital Matte Artist,” meaning he focused on the animation itself.

A creative eighth grader who has long been interested in art, Jeffry wasn’t sure what he would do with his talent and interest. “I knew I wanted to be some kind of designer, but after working with digital media, I know I want to be a graphic designer or video editor,” he says. “I want to be able to work at a place like Artists for Humanity in Boston.”

The digital media class would not be possible without the Expanded Learning Time schedule. Breanne Mahoney, who teaches the course with Courtney Kiley Gould, cites the program’s clear benefits. It’s a chance for students to express themselves, explore a topic, and learn sophisticated technology—all vital skills.

“I see the benefits in seeing students like Jeffry come out of his shell and master digital media skills,” she says. “Watching him develop his talents and confidence has been amazing.”

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