Recently, I had a vigorous discussion about expanded learning time. My sparring partner: my 14-year-old cousin.
The reason for our debate was simple. Her eighth grade class had taken a field trip to the Massachusetts State House. While there, their assignment was to debate whether Massachusetts schools should have longer school days in the House Chamber. For a political nerd (and former legislative aide in the Massachusetts House) like me, this sounded like an awesome field trip. Ellery was assigned into the “anti” longer school day group, which fit her beliefs, much to my chagrin. I then asked her if she mentioned to her teachers or classmates that her cousin works for the leading national organization on this issue. She looked at me as if I were crazy. It seems broadcasting that she has a family member advocating for longer school days is not necessarily going to help win friends among the 13- to 15-year-old set.
But her skepticism is not a surprise. She lives in a fairly affluent suburb outside of Boston, a suburb to which families want to move to because of the school system. The high school routinely sends their students to top-notch colleges, and the town’s parents and community are engaged in activities, fundraising, and athletics. Ellery’s after school hours are filled with opportunity – dance classes, basketball practices, and rehearsals for an upcoming play.
As we discussed ELT, it became clear that those activities were at the crux of it. She is living her own version of expanded learning time — she is already doing so much outside of school. She has the opportunity to try new things and to see if a new hobby will become a lifelong passion, while at the same time, developing other critical skills, like public speaking, problem solving, and teamwork. And she’s simply having fun.
In trying to win her over, we talked about the differences among communities and families. While she may be busy from 3 pm to 7 pm every day, she knows not every child in her town, nor in the communities around hers, may have those same possibilities open to them. I explained that the goal of my work is to open those doors to everyone.
I’m not sure I won Ellery over by the end of this discussion. She is 14 years old, after all. In debating her, though, I reinvigorated myself in this work. I believe that schools in our low-income communities need that additional time in order to close both the achievement gaps and opportunity gaps. The challenges with achievement are difficult and persistent, and I don’t want to downplay their significance. At the same time, I know that it is incredibly important to give schools time to open up new experiences and opportunities for students who would not otherwise have them.
In a family of athletes, Ellery has found a passion and talent for theater. I am committed to bringing her on as an advocate to this cause – along with many, many others – so we can ensure that all kids have the time and opportunity to find their passions.