Lack of funding stalls Gov. Christie's plan for more class time

Jazzir Page puts his crayon down when he hears his teacher, Jasmyn Ledford, ask for attention.

“One, two, three, eyes on me,” Ledford tells Jazzir and the other 5-year-olds in her basement classroom.

“One, two, eyes on you,” they chirp in response.

It’s Day Four of the two-week Kindergarten Transition Academy at the Roseville Community Charter School in Newark, and Ledford and her assistants are making progress as they orient their dozen students to the routines and procedures of the classroom.

The school’s director, Marshaé Newkirk, said the 45 students, the majority of the 66 expected to start the school year on Aug. 25, get a jump on the year by familiarizing themselves with the school and their teachers. It also gives teachers the chance to assess the students and better prepare their approaches to teaching them.

“We get a lot of this out of the way and when they come back in August they are old pros,” Newkirk said.

The 10-day summer academy at the charter school is a precursor to the K-Grade 4 school’s 193-day school year, which is longer than the 180-day school year required by the state.

It’s exactly the sort of additional time that Gov. Chris Christie was talking about in January, when in his State of the State address he called for longer school days, and more of them, for New Jersey’s 1.3 million public school children.

“Life in 2014 demands something more of our students,” said Christie, who promised a proposal to lengthen both the day and the school year. “We should do it now.”

But six months after Christie’s bold proposal, the state has no formal plan to extend learning time. A $5 million innovation fund that would have helped pay for new programs was a casualty of a late-spring budget crunch. A separate $1 million fund for after-school and summer programs for at-risk students remains.

It is a subject that has been discussed for years, though finding the additional money, and convincing parents and teachers to give up summer vacation, are the major challenges.

Following Christie’s speech, leaders of the state’s teachers unions were skeptical. The American Federation of Teachers New Jersey president Donna Chiera called it a political gimmick, while NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer questioned the governor’s motives because Christie had just vetoed a bill creating a task force to study mandated full-day kindergarten, which would dramatically expand learning time for tens of thousands of students in districts with half-day programs.

Extended learning is gaining traction around the country, with districts and states taking several different approaches to increase class time in the hope of improving student achievement. The federal government is also pushing the concept, with requirements for more time built into some grant programs.

“We were incredibly disappointed that the governor’s initiative didn’t move forward,” said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit company in Boston focused on the issue. “We lost (former Education Commissioner) Chris Cerf and that’s a blow to some of his agenda. If you’ve lost credibility, as the governor has, it puts you in a difficult place to move anything forward.”

Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that in an effort to move ahead on the proposal, officials were looking at other sources of financing for a pilot program and have launched an online portal that highlights innovative plans, including extended learning.

“Although it will likely be less funding than we planned, we’re confident we can still foster meaningful programs,” Yaple said.

Even without Trenton’s involvement, many schools in the state provide summer learning opportunities.

Charter schools lead the effort, with most offering longer school days and summer programs for incoming and current students alike. They have the flexibility to schedule their days differently, and many are able to provide longer days because they employ nonunion teachers.

The Roseville school in Newark uses federal Title I funds to support its kindergarten academy and its four-week intervention program for 40 older students who are invited to participate.

“This is extra support so we don’t see an additional summer slide,” Newkirk said. “We’re not closing the gap completely, but we want to make sure there isn’t more lag.”

Many school districts offer fee-based summer camps that explore arts, science or other themes. The camps as a rule are a week or two long and feature regular faculty members, who are paid extra to provide educational opportunities for families with the means to pay for them.

Westfield Public Schools this month held its second annual STEM Camp focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, giving 200 students hands-on lessons in science, technology, engineering and math. The weeklong program for students entering grades 3 through 8 included robotics, rocketry, computer design and forensics at a cost of $250 a student.

Sean Bonasera, the camp’s coordinator, said the program gives students the opportunity to explore ideas and learn by doing.

“It’s framed similar to a school day, but the expectations and the pressure isn’t quite what you would see during the school year,” Bonasera said. “The kids naturally want to absorb this information. And they come out with quite a lot of knowledge.”

Susan Francis, a Westfield parent, said her 9-year-old son, Jake, enjoyed the program. “He didn’t want to miss it,” she said. “They don’t feel like they’re going to school. He was learning but he felt it was a fun program.”

Francis enrolls her children in several programs over the summer to balance the free time with activities. “It’s important they get the break they have,” she said.

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