Seattle school district considers extending elementary school day

Apr 18, 2013

Seattle Public Schools wants to add a half-hour to the school day for elementary students by as early as the next school year. But the district must first align a number of variables, including funding and union support.

The average school day for Seattle’s elementary students is six hours and five minutes, which is thought to be the shortest school day in the Puget Sound region. The reason for it dates back to 1975 when the district cut the day short following two failed levies.

Now, nearly four decades later, officials are laying the groundwork to finally reverse that. The impetus, says Deputy Superintendent Bob Boesche, is the unequal quality of non-core subjects like gym and the arts.

“We want to give an assurance that whether you’re attending school in the north, the south, the east, the west, you're able to receive an assurance of basic academic instruction in all of our elementaries,” Boesche said.

Right now, the district depends heavily on volunteers, especially for art and music, and that tends to favor certain schools over others. Boesche says one way to change that is to hand the subjects back to teachers and extend the school day.

Finding the money

Getting that done would be a major undertaking, requiring, among other things, money.

District officials hope the state Legislature will come through with new school funding this session, though it’s worth noting that neither arts, gym nor a longer school day are among the priorities singled out by the state Supreme Court in its ruling that said Washington needs to spend more money on education.

Boesche says the cost of having certificated teachers take over the arts and PE would add up to about $8 million, and additional costs would be determined in collective bargaining with the teachers' union.

“We can’t do this without our labor partner, the Seattle Education Association. We know that this is truly a partnership between everybody,” he said.

'Devil’s in the details'

As of last week, though, the Seattle Education Association was unaware a longer school day was even being considered. Extending the day has led to major labor battles elsewhere, like Chicago. But in Seattle, SEA President Jonathan Knapp seems open to the idea.

“The devil’s always in the details, but yeah, there’s definitely a case to be made for having more time in the day for the things that really enrich the experience for kids,” Knapp said.

But, Knapp added, what the district would do with the extra time is a key question—would it really be art and gym, or would it get sucked up into test prep?

“There obviously has to be a commitment that it’s sincerely an effort to restore the richness of the school curriculum, and not just double-dipping of the tested subjects,” he said.

A wish list for the added time

It’s not yet clear whether the union and the district are on the same page on how schools should use the extra time. SPS curriculum and instruction chief Shauna Heath emphasizes those subjects that Knapp supports, but also suggests the time could help shore up other weak spots in student learning.

“We’d be able to offer students deeper dives into certain content areas like social studies and science,” Heath said. “And we’d also be able to provide them with a lot more rigorous focus on the arts, and the social-emotional piece through PE and music. And those all would be more accessible to us than they are now.”

In the meantime, the state is raising the minimums for total instruction time at public schools. That, plus the possibility of new funding, has district officials hopeful the timing is finally right for a longer elementary school day.

KPLU’s Jennifer Wing contributed reporting to this story.