It's a sunny April morning during my first year of teaching. I'm leading a line of students from the main building of the school to our classroom, which is located in a doublewide just outside the west entrance. It is about 10am, and our group is spotted by the district superintendent, who is heading to his office. The man takes a hard look at the line of students, and says to me, “You know what the three best parts of teaching are?” I shake my head. “June, July, and August!” He walks away with a hearty chuckle.
This story takes place at a failing school in a high-poverty rural community. During my time as a teacher, there was much talk of reform. Reading programs and discipline systems came and went. No one, however, seemed to realize that a minor scheduling adjustment might dramatically spur student achievement.
My state, like many, measured the school year in terms of hours rather than days. In other words, to meet state requirements, the administrators just had to schedule (roughly) 1,440 hours of school. During my first year, I noticed that during the last two hours of the day, the kids seemed spent. They were easily distracted, unenthusiastic, and not learning a whole lot—the polar opposite of the first two hours of the day. After talking to many teachers who had been observing the same thing for years, I brought it up at a staff meeting. “Since lots of research shows that student learning benefits from a longer school year, why doesn’t our school have 6 hour days for an extra two months? And I mean, we teachers would have less time off in the summer, but overall, we’d have shorter, more productive days.”
And then, I realized that it was the most naïve thing that anyone had ever said at a staff meeting. I wasn’t thinking at all about economics.
At this school, it’s not about feeding the kids. 100 percent of the K-12 population is on federally-subsidized breakfasts and lunches, and funding adjusts to the number of days of the school year. As it was explained to me, however, the 8-hour school day is a dictate from the school's transportation director. The buses have to make fewer runs if there are fewer days in the year. The longer the school day, the more economically-efficient the busing situation. When you factor in driver salaries and the cost of gas——some students have a 1.5 hour commute each way, each day——the amount saved by having nine months rather than eleven is significant.
Yes, it’s true, that many individuals like my superintendent wouldn’t have fought too hard to reallocate funds into the yearly transportation budget to make a longer school year possible. There’s certainly something screwed up when the head of a school district says… to a TEACHER… in front of a group of STUDENTS… that the best part of a job is the part where you don’t have to work (or be around the ragamuffins, in other words).
Not everyone in the ed world is like this guy. And $4.35 billion is suddenly out there. Why aren’t more people talking about the school bus situation?
Some argue that KIPP schools are successful because they foster a certain culture of learning within their walls, that KIPP teachers are hard-working and passionate, and so on. But it can’t be denied that KIPP kids spend more hours learning than their peers. In DC, for instance, KIPP is alive and educating during the months of July and August. All students attend summer school from 9 to 1 each day, and during the regular school year, there’s Saturday school twice a month. KIPP DC can do this, of course, because it doesn’t rely on buses to bring in students from all over the metropolitan area. Same thing with NYC and Chicago. But in rural areas, suburban areas, and cities without extensive public transportation networks, more school days can’t happen without more bus runs.
If the alternative to school during the summer months is camp, programs at the public library, and educational play, the former is not needed. But in high-poverty areas, camp is less likely to be an option, and mandatory summer school suddenly becomes very important. Unfortunately, sometimes saving on transportation costs trumps all else. If schools weren’t notorious for fecklessly wasting overhead——honey, I've seen purchase orders for color print cartridges that would bring tears to your eyes——this perhaps wouldn’t be such a tragedy.
(Note: I originally posted this at http://theedskeptic.blogspot.com/2010/01/its-all-about-buses.html)