Boston Mayor’s Expanded Learning Initiative Broadens Opportunities for Students and Teachers

My colleague wrote a few months ago of the link between expanded time and innovation and how providing more time for teaching and learning can often become so much more than just added “time on task.”  Indeed, if implemented well, expanding school time can catalyze “disruptive innovation,” as Harvard Business School scholar Clayton Christensen calls it. In other words, the act of infusing more time into the school day often compels educators to consider how to more fundamentally address the 21st century needs of students and schools. Everything from staffing to professional development to curriculum to the most basic question of the purpose of schooling is laid on the table. In the course of adding time, schools have been known to become much more ambitious about what they do with and for students.  And with the vital national push to ensure all students have a well-rounded education, the opportunities that rethinking the school day open up are of paramount importance. 

Just consider one example from Boston, where the Jackson/Mann K – 8 School, after the expansion of the day by just 40 minutes, has launched a whole new approach to enrichment. The enrichment programming rests on a deep partnership with the nearby West End House Boys and Girls Club, a partnership that evolved and deepened just after Mayor Martin Walsh announced in Spring 2015 that the school would be part of the first cohort of Boston schools to expand their schedules. Almost immediately, the Jackson/Mann school administration and that of West End House began a planning process to figure out what was possible.

The first step was a logistical one: figuring out how West End House could adapt the Club’s operating schedule to accommodate 220 young people each day during school hours. The result of the planning was that Jackson/Mann and West End House would offer a program to run three days per week during the school day in three one-hour blocks (i.e., one hour per student group). All 1st through 8th grade students from Jackson/Mann would be served through this initiative.

The second piece of the planning revolved around program content and educational objectives: developing curricula for offerings in art, education, life skills, and fitness to deliver during regular enrichment activities.Now in place for the current school year, the Jackson/Mann-West End House partnership offers a wide array of activities. Students arrive at the West End House during the school day to engage in the following program components led and delivered by West End House staff:

  • Educational Enrichment:  This programming features hands-on, interactive activities focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts, such as a Lego robotics program, where students build a “Green” city and learn about renewable energy.  Meanwhile, middle schoolers have participated in literacy circles to discuss novels.
  • Visual Arts: Classes explore painting, drawing, ceramics, and mixed media, taking young people from beginner to more advanced concepts.
  • Girls Group/Boys Group: Gender-specific life skills programs help students learn about self-esteem, health and wellness, and relationships in a small-group setting. Sessions feature interactive activities, group discussions, and games.
  • Fitness: Fitness activities in the gym and the dance studio keep young people moving to improve their health and wellness. Staff run both competitive and non-competitive activities to appeal to a broad base of young people. The program even partners with Boston Ballet to offer ballet fitness and with Tenacity to teach tennis skills. 
  • Music and Video: Lessons in keyboard, guitar, bass guitar, drums, voice, music theory, ensemble performance, and beat-making. Students can also learn the fundamentals of film production, including scripting, editing, shooting, etc.

Throughout all these activities, staff and school faculty are seeking to close opportunity gaps by engaging children in productive learning settings that will lead to increased academic achievement. Even early on, the effect on student engagement has been clear, with far fewer discipline issues in the middle grades. Simply put, students enjoy school more with these added enrichment programs that are a new part of their school day.  There are even plans in the works to offer swimming for kindergarteners next year.  A bigger goal, over time, should also be to enable teachers more time to collaborate and to participate in professional learning while the students are in these exciting enrichment programs.  Of course, supporting teacher leadership and teacher-directed collaboration time is already a critical part of the initiative, with strong backing from the Boston Teachers Union. 

Of course, this vastly enhanced enrichment for the students at Jackson/Mann is not free. To its enormous credit, West End House has been able to absorb 90 percent of the costs for all of the programming this year. (Jackson/Mann pays the remaining 10 percent from its budget.) But this financial arrangement may not be able to last, so this becomes yet another object lesson in the hard truth that, for all its power to inspire educational innovation, more time is also a dollars and cents issue.  At NCTL, we do hope that the needs of students—and the incredible benefits they reap from being able to attend an expanded-time school that has taken full advantage of what more time can offer—holds greater weight than the burden of having to raise money.  There is a cost to expanding educational opportunity.  However, the cost of maintaining the status quo, where too many children are left without the chance to explore their interests and develop their talents, is far greater in the long run.