A Modest Proposal for Building Community Support for Expanded Time

I recall President Bill Clinton saying that, next to president, the toughest office to hold in the United States is member of the local school board. And you can see his point. Political decisions that directly affect the lives of children are always tough. When those children are not merely abstractions, but the very real shining, happy faces you see every day, the decisions become deeply personal. When cutbacks or questions of equity are involved, the decisions that have to be made can even be painful and unsettling. So, I tip my hat to all our local school board members who must daily try to manage through the many competing agendas to support schools the best that they can.

I bring this up because, as much as I am an ardent supporter of expanding learning time, I am well aware that introducing this kind of change to a school community is not without its critics. Some parents have legitimate concerns that lengthening the day by 90 minutes or so will upset afternoon routines for children whose school days now end at 2:00 or 2:30. The upshot is that when a proposal for substantially lengthening the school day emerges, some communities may find opposition outweighs support. The powers-that-be must then navigate through the forces of pro and con to come to a solution on how to proceed.

The first step is understanding why parents may be opposed to a longer day for their children. In our experience, opposition to the proposal often emerges because the disruption a longer day brings to what is already known—a set afternoon habit of homework or afterschool activities—is unambiguous. In turn, this disruption can be anxiety-provoking. On the other hand, the potential benefits of a longer day are less immediately clear to parents: what does it mean to have more instructional time or have enrichment built into the school day? It is much easier to disregard unknown advantages than certain disadvantages.

And this is why a months-long planning process is so vital in boosting the potential of an expanded-time proposal to become reality. The planning actually has two favorable effects. First, it becomes the vehicle through which to collect parental input into what a redesigned school day can look like. Second, it gives educators more time to communicate the vision and specifics of the redesigned day to the whole community. Just by virtue of having more opportunity to describe the plans, a greater number of parents will come to see how their child’s school will become a place with more robust teaching and learning, not to mention provide their child a broader array of activities as part of school than they would otherwise have access to. In this case, familiarity often breeds approval.

The lesson for school committees who might be considering expanding the schedule at one or more schools in the district, then, is to not make snap judgments about its viability based on immediate reaction of parents or students. They are only reacting (legitimately) to disruptions that will happen; they are not yet seeing the potential good that can come. Give the school-based educators, together with external partners and parents, time to develop a thorough plan of what a redesigned day could entail. Also, encourage the school community to make this planning process as transparent as possible. Free flow of information will generate trust and erode confusion and conflicting information. If school boards are able to make the process of adopting an expanded-time model more deliberate and thoughtful, they might just find that competing agendas transform into a consensus for change.