Anne Arundel County schools will extend their day by 10 minutes in response to principals' concerns that the current 6 1/2 -hour day does not provide adequate time for classes and other activities.
Starting this fall, the additional minutes will be tacked on to the end of the day to prevent the higher busing costs that would have accompanied earlier start times.
Principals will have the freedom to use the extra time in whatever way they would like - whether it's adding to core subjects like reading and math, boosting time for electives like art or music or even providing more time between class changes.
"The goal is to add to instructional time. The superintendent, [Kevin M. Maxwell], believes this could really help increase student achievement," said schools spokesman Bob Mosier.
"At principals' meetings, there's been a lot of talk about how to find additional instructional time wherever possible. Every extra minute we can get helps."
However, the measure has drawn criticism from teachers' union officials who say the additional minutes will increase workload for teachers and further aggravate the district's struggle with retention.
"At a time when we have all these testing pressures, we shouldn't be adding to the workday, but looking at how to use the existing time more efficiently," said Tim Mennuti, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.
Mennuti said the extra 10 minutes would be shaved from teachers' common planning period, a time when teachers of the same grade gather to tear apart test data and diagnose how to address common learning gaps.
"There's no point in collecting all that test data, if you're not going to be given time to go through it," he said.
Public schools have been crunched for time as high-stakes pressure builds at the state and federal level.
To provide more time on reading and math - core subjects tested by the state - schools have cut back on other non-tested subjects like social studies, art, music and physical education.
School administrators say a longer school day might allow them to squeeze core subjects in without sacrificing electives.
"I have no problem with accountability," said Jacques Smith, principal of Chesapeake Bay Middle School and a 39-year educator. "But sometimes, I'm not sure that the federal accountability model is in line with what's best for students. It's important for students to have a rich selection of electives. It's our job to produce well-rounded citizens. But we only have so many minutes in the day."
Schedules are tricky, Smith said.
"Unless you've spent a lot of time in schools, you don't realize how other things like morning announcements and changing classes cuts back on the time actually spent learning," he said.
Smith teaches a class for prospective educators at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He likes to draw a diagram for his students at UMBC showing how the 6 1/2 -hour instructional day progressively boils down to just a fraction of actual engaged learning time once other school and classroom distractions are subtracted.
"You have all of these things that you have to take care of, announcements, teachers taking attendance at the start of every period, but then, you have to find some way to make sure that students are getting enough time on task when that light bulb is going off, 'Yes, I get this,'" Smith said.
Don Lilley, the Annapolis High School principal, said he's planning to talk to his staff about how to use the additional time. In a school that has failed to meet state performance benchmarks for four consecutive years, Lilley said, the extra minutes might help him offer remedial help to students at risk of not graduating.
He said he might like even more time added to the school day but said fiscal and staffing realities would likely limit that.
"There's no question, we need a lot more time to get the job done, but is it realistic to get a lot more time? I don't know. I have to think about my staff's welfare too," Lilley said.