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Kids Reap Benefits of Longer School Year

At the Robert Treat Academy, students sporting blue-and-green plaid uniforms fill the auditorium at 8:30 for morning announcements.

"Have a sensational day of learning," principal Michael Pallante says to the crowd after they sing Happy Birthday to a fellow student.

"Let's stay focused. Let's learn. You guys are becoming stars."

Some students have been there since 7:30, eating breakfast and receiving extra homework help.

About 70 percent of its 450 kindergarten through eighth-grade students stay until at least 5 p.m.

The public charter school operates 205 to 210 days a year, compared with the state-required 180.

Some grade levels devote Saturday hours to state testing preparation.

Pallante calls the 11-month school year a "blessing for these urban school kids and their parents. We have kids from broken homes, drugs, parents incarcerated. We have everything."

More time is necessary for academic improvement, he says.

Robert Treat Academy boasted the highest test scores among New Jersey urban public schools in 2008, based on a test called the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge. The school was one of only eight nationwide declared "high-poverty, high-achieving" by the U.S. Department of Education.

With examples like this, the push for extended learning time is gaining nationwide.

Roughly 1,000 schools - 80 percent charter schools, 20 percent traditional public schools - have expanded their schedules by more than one to two hours a day or 300 hours a year, according to the National Center on Time and Learning in Boston.

Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says poorer children need enrichment programs over summer months to compete academically with middle-class children. "The real key is what you do with the extra time," he says. "It has to be high-quality."

But in Miami-Dade County, Fla., a three-year program in 39 underperforming public schools that included an extended school day and a longer school year produced mixed academic results, according to a final evaluation released last month. Administrators and teachers experienced fatigue and burnout, and many students did not attend class in the beginning of the summer, the report said.

"Principals and teachers also reported that proficient students felt stigmatized by the mandatory additional time, which was viewed as a punishment rather than enhancement," program evaluators wrote.

Other report findings showed students scored lower on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in reading or math compared with other students in the county.

KIPP Philadelphia Charter School CEO Marc Mannella says he instituted a longer school year because students were coming to KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) behind by two to three grade levels.

Ashley Rainer, 13, says she doesn't mind leaving the house at 5:50 a.m. to take the bus to KIPP Philadelphia. "I feel good about it, because I know when I'm in college and have a job it is going to happen," she says.

Other kids aren't exactly thrilled.

"Everybody says it (stinks) going to school in the summer, but it benefits me," says Louis Grier, 14, of Robert Treat, where students won't see a summer break until July 1.

The concept of a longer school year also has spread to Louisiana and the Recovery School District, which was formed after Hurricane Katrina to give direction to underperforming schools. District Superintendent Paul Vallas added 40 days of instruction to the school calendar.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, takes the stand that the extended calendar may work for certain school districts but not all.

"More hours is not automatically the best answer," says the NEA's Joel Packer. "Maybe we need to reduce class size, change our curriculum. Maybe we need more school counselors and mentors."

Joshua Medina, 16, a former Robert Treat student, now goes to The Hill school in Potsdam, Pa., on scholarship.

He already has his eye on New York University or Washington, D.C.'s Howard University and hopes to pursue a career in law.

"Robert Treat became my home away from home. From birth, I was always a motivated person, but coming to this school really helped me realize what I'm motivated for."

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