Alysha Rodriguez has one of those smart, sassy smiles that brighten fireplace mantels and living room walls. The 17-year-old senior at Northeast Preparatory High School greets visitors with a firm, sincere handshake that would impress any executive. She plans to go to college to become a zoologist.
But Rodriguez says the student she is today is not the one she was only a year ago.
"I never used to come to school or I would come late," she says. "I always used to be outside and I didn't do my homework. I made some bad choices."
Rodriguez says she liked hanging out with her friends in her North Clinton Avenue neighborhood. She says she didn't get into trouble, but the opportunity was all around her and she didn't know how to handle it.
"Kids have nothing to do so they wash their minds off with TV, sleep late, or be reckless," she says.
But Rodriguez began making changes in her life about a year ago with the help of her mother, teachers, and Mary Aronson, the principal at Northeast Prep. Aronson says Rodriguez has some catching up to do, but that she's on track to graduate in June. And Rodriguez credits her newfound interest in school to Northeast Prep's newly established longer hours.
While many students would probably recoil at the idea of a longer school day, Rodriguez says it has made a huge difference, and that school is more relaxed, interesting, and fun. She likes it so much she even volunteers some of her extra time to help other students. And she says her teachers have more time to spend with her.
"Nobody is going to get me like this school gets me," she says.
Northeast Prep and School 9 are two of three schools in the Rochester school district that started the year off with longer hours. All City High, which opened this fall, also has a longer day; it's designed to give students who need it a more flexible class schedule.
And if Superintendent Bolgen Vargas gets his way, these schools are just the beginning of a shift to longer school days for many city schools.
Almost every Rochester school leader has changed the way the district operates. Former superintendent Manny Rivera was especially invested in helping seventh and eighth graders transition to high school. For Jean-Claude Brizard, it was offering parents a portfolio of schools to choose from.
Vargas's strategic change is extended school days. He's betting that lengthening the hours of instruction and the school year will reverse the district's persistently low performance.
Vargas says his plan is neither a test nor a pilot program. He's calling it a new approach, and he says he wants to have eight additional city schools convert to the longer schedule next fall.
"We believe that all children can and will learn if you give them the time and support they need," Vargas says. "Our children have special needs. Students and their families face challenges in their neighborhoods and homes every day. We can't just continue to tell students 'You need to spend more time on math, science, English, and history.' We have to do something to mitigate those challenges."
Vargas's goal is to provide students at least 300 extra hours of instruction and activities every year through a combination of longer school days and summer hours. For example, there are more than 550 students at Northeast Prep, and buses begin arriving at 6:50 a.m. The day ends at around 6:15 p.m., which adds one additional hour to the morning and three hours to the afternoon: adding a total of approximately four hours and fifteen minutes to the day.
School 9 has a similar schedule.
But many questions surround the idea. Do longer days and more time on tasks result in better outcomes, or is this another trend in a long list of education fads? And how does the district staff, manage, and fund the expansion?
Vargas has sought help from the business and nonprofit communities to provide services for his initiative. But is that a sustainable approach?
And if the district is already having difficulty with student attendance, what convinces Vargas that students will put up with a longer day?
Lengthening the school day is generally most attractive to administrators of urban school districts. At least some of the lure stems from charter schools. A longer school day is often touted by charter school leaders and their advocates as one of the fundamental differences between charters and traditional public schools. More time devoted to instruction, say many teachers and administrators in urban schools, is one of the reasons students in some charters have higher test scores.
And advocates of lengthening the school day often point out that the traditional system was designed for a different society and a much earlier, agriculture-driven economy.
But research on longer school days is far from conclusive. A 2010 report in the Review of Educational Research, "Extending the School Day or School Year," examined 15 studies dating back to 1985. It showed that extending school time can improve student performance, but it's not a silver bullet. Teacher effectiveness and how the extra time is used are equally important, the report says. Simply expanding the school day with low quality instruction isn't going to yield better results, it says.
Nationwide, there are more than 1,000 traditional public schools and charters with longer school days, according to a report by the School Library Journal. And students are engaged in a wide range of activities, including learning another language, receiving help with homework, or participating in a school play.
At both Northeast and School 9, students have more instruction time devoted to the core subjects.
But they also have more time for art, music, drama, sports, and other enrichment activities. The additional activities are extremely important to city students, Vargas says. He describes it as the challenge of making school more interesting than the street.
And if time during the day is needed for counseling, emotional support, or a visit to the nurse's office, it usually doesn't consume as much of the student's critically important instruction time as it would during a traditional school day.
Students can receive their meals — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — at school, too. Vargas says it's an example of how longer days also benefit families. Being in school among caring adults reassures parents that their child is in a safe environment during a time of day when children are especially vulnerable to getting into trouble or becoming victims of crime, he says.
"Say you're a nurse's aide at Strong Hospital," Vargas says. "You can be out of the house for 8 to 10 hours a day. If you have a young child, you are better off because you don't have to worry about where your child is during that ninth or 10th hour before you can get home."
What Vargas describes as a holistic approach to extended learning bears some resemblance to the Harlem Children's Zone and the failed Rochester Children's Zone. Though it is much smaller in scope, it relies on a wraparound approach to educating poor children.
But Jennifer Leonard, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, dislikes the comparison. The foundation helped secure a grant to support expanded hours at School 9 and Northeast Prep.
"Vargas has taken a homegrown grassroots approach that is different from the Harlem Children's Zone, which was in some respects a grass-tops approach," she says. "What I see Vargas doing is engaging the community's resources very early."
But expanding the day and the school year will surely test the management skills of teachers, principals, and administrators. In his approach to longer hours, Vargas has created a system with many moving parts, something that would ordinarily be a cause for concern.
Caterina Leone Mannino, the district's director of extended learning, says the coordination is messy and will require continuous fine-tuning."
District teachers provide most of the grade-level academic instruction. But enrichment activities, social-emotional counseling, and tutoring are delivered through an elaborate circuitry of volunteers and outside organizations the district refers to as Supplemental Education Service providers.
But a dependency on so many SES providers may not be a bad thing. Some research suggests that urban school districts offering longer school days can be more successful if the effort is driven by the community. Mannino says educating city students should be viewed as a shared responsibility, a public-private partnership.
"If I had to describe this problem, I wouldn't call it an achievement gap," she says. "It's really an opportunity gap. Students from more academically privileged backgrounds have all these opportunities. So the question is how do we close this gap in a central place? How do we work together as a community to offer these kids dance, drama, and music? It shouldn't be up to one organization."
The fluidity among SES providers also serves another need, Mannino says. Expanding the school day allows school officials to design programs that align with each student's needs and interests, which can change throughout the school year. A fixed menu for all students doesn't work, she says.
Coordinating the work of SES providers and making the best use of students' time is not the only challenge confronting teachers and administrators. While most school board members agree with Vargas's extended-hours plan in theory, some are concerned about long-term viability. Though every school in the district has its own annual operating budget, the added hours at Northeast Prep and School 9 come with additional costs.
Vargas has been able to cobble together a mix of funding and community resources, such as grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Center for Time and Learning, help from United Way, and by reallocating some education funds to pay for the longer hours.
And he has been able limit additional labor costs. Some teachers have agreed to a flexible schedule, while some others have been willing to voluntarily work the extra hours.
But at a recent meeting, some school board members grilled Mannino about SES funding. For example, Board member Melisza Campos asked what happens if the Ford Foundation doesn't provide another grant.
"If the will is there, it [the funding] will be sustainable," Vargas says. "We may have to reallocate some of our resources."
But that won't be easy. Vargas just announced that the district is facing a $33 million budget gap for the 2013 to 2014 school year.
And some board members question the rationale and process for selecting SES providers. Vargas says he wants the services offered on the schools' campuses, causing some people to worry that providers will be chosen based on convenience and not quality.
"More students will use the services when they are easy to access," Vargas says. He cites research from the Afterschool Alliance, that says providing services at the school allows for sharing space and materials, and cuts down on transportation costs. Service providers are also better able to coordinate with students' teachers and principals.
And there is some concern about who contracts with the service providers: principals or school-based planning teams and parents? And what data does the district use to evaluate the performance of the service providers?
"The district needs to dig deeper," says Susan Steron, director of Sylvan Learning, one of the service providers.
While Vargas's plan for longer days has some rough edges, he has managed to draw support from a wide range of politicians, businesses, nonprofits, labor, faith, and educational groups.
Teachers in the schools voted overwhelmingly in support of the longer-day format, and local foods giant Wegmans has virtually adopted Northeast Prep. Paul Speranza, vice chair and general counsel for Wegmans, is working with Vargas to improve students' reading skills.
While Wegmans does not provide financial support to Northeast Prep, Ty Kelly, the company's director of youth development, is building a volunteer work force to support students, particularly in the area of reading.
"The whole mantra behind all of this is 'Let's put the children first in each and every case,'" Speranza says. "We all have our vested interests, whether we're parents, teachers, whether we live in the neighborhood, or we're involved with the union, the administration, or politics. We have to put the children first because we've failed them. The results don't lie."