Thirty three Central Florida elementary schools must extend their day by an hour when school starts next month, a plan some say will boost reading skills but others fear will leave young students sapped and overworked.
The 33 schools — on campuses from Leesburg to Orlando to Sanford — landed on the state's list of lowest-performing elementary schools because so many of their students did poorly on Florida's reading tests this spring.
Now they must provide an extra hour of daily reading instruction for the 2014-15 school year, tacking it on to a typical six-hour school day.
"I strongly disagree with it," said Carla Fischer, whose 10-year-old daughter attends Orlando's Fern Creek Elementary School, one of 23 campuses in Orange County on the list.
Fischer said she worried a longer day would leave her daughter too tired for after-school karate classes and limit teachers' ability to offer enrichment programs before and after classes.
Her daughter is a strong reader, she added, but even youngsters who need extra help might feel burned out because they already spend so much time in class, with little or no recess.
Lawmakers required the extended day to give struggling students an extra dose of needed reading lessons, and that makes sense to Oscar Aguirre, principal of Lovell Elementary School in Apopka, which is also on the state list.
"I'm very, very happy about getting that extra hour," he said.
Aguirre was planning to schedule before or after-school tutoring for his students, many of whom are still learning English and struggle with reading comprehension. But assuring attendance at tutoring sessions can be tricky.
With the new schedule — and school-bus service to accommodate it — students will get extra reading help during their school day. That, Aguirre said, "is a positive thing."
The extra hour is mandatory for all students except those who scored a 5 on the reading section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the highest possible mark on the five-level exam. Those students could skip the extra hour. A 3 is considered passing but would not exempt students from a longer day.
The percentage of youngsters who did that well at the 33 schools is very low, however. Some campuses had no one scoring a 5 on the third-grade FCAT reading exam, for example, while several others had just 1 percent to 4 percent — or a handful of students — doing that well.
Kathy Shuler, an associate superintendent in Orange, said plenty of research shows the benefits of "extended learning." During the extra hour, teachers will work with students in small groups, giving them instruction based on their reading skills. Schools will offer snacks and breaks, so the longer day shouldn't be too taxing, she added.
This is the third year the Florida Legislature has required the extra hour at certain schools.
More than 70 percent of the schools with a longer day in the 2012-13 school year increased passing rates on FCAT reading, according to a report by the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability.
The list is recalculated each year, so schools that improve could move off the next year. The six Orange schools on that list two years ago moved off the next year, though some are back on it again this year.
That helped persuade lawmakers to expand the list this year from 100 to 300 schools. In the end, 307 schools statewide ended up on the 2014-15 list because of ties when the rankings were tallied. The rankings were based on the percentage of a school's students who passed FCAT reading and the percentage who showed improvement.
School administrators said longer school days can be beneficial — but also costly. They are frustrated the Legislature gave them no extra money for the effort.
"The district just has to figure out how to pay for it with its operating budget," said Rick Collins, the Orange school district's chief financial officer.
He estimates Orange will spend nearly $4 million, most of that to pay teachers for an extra hour of work. Teachers at the extra-hour campuses are not required to work the additional hour, so if they choose not to, the district will offer the work to qualified instructors from other schools
Marj Dill, a teacher at Hamilton Elementary School in Sanford, isn't sure the effort is worthwhile. The Seminole County school had to extend its day last school year and will do so again. Its grade, however, fell from a D in 2013 to an F this year.
"It's hard to feel positive about having the extra hour again," she said.
Hamilton added the extra hour last year by starting earlier, and Dill noticed an increase in tardy students, suggesting the 7:35 a.m. start didn't work for some families. Teachers were tired at the end of the day, and so were kids, she said.
"That was a very long day for little elementary kids, especially if they had to get up so early," she added.
Lake County parent Summer Young said the longer day coming to Beverly Shores Elementary in Leesburg has persuaded her to home-school her first-grade daughter. She views the extra hour as part of a school culture focused too much on high-stakes standardized tests.
"I do not believe this will help the children in the long run, only make it more likely that they will dislike school," she wrote in an email.
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