Posts Tagged school schedule

Time, the Most Valuable Currency in the School Day

Published by — Setting aside downtime helps nurture the skills that let kids be successful.


Last week we marveled over what the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI could do by investing one minute of class time here and there with “energizers.”  But while a one-minute pick-me-up freshens kids’ ability to learn, what on earth would a whole hour of downtime yield?

Unlike most schools, ICS students take a giant break from academics in the middle of their day.  Though it’s a charter school, ICS has the same relatively short day as local district schools, 6.5 hours.  Carved from that limited time are 20 minutes for recess followed by a full 30 minutes for lunch, then a 10-minute quiet time — one hour.

Yes, ICS is a dual language school.  They switch languages mid-day, from Spanish or Portuguese in the morning, say, to English in the afternoon.  While the mid-day break helps with making the language switch, that’s not why they do it.  Instead, the seeming downtime is set aside to nurture skills that help kids be successful as people.

Time is finite, whether it’s a class period, a school day or a lifetime.  What teachers say they have enough time in the day to accomplish all they are expected to do?  Over the summer, administrators work for days on schedules as complex and convoluted as M.C. Escher drawings, shaving minutes off here to make room for new requirements there.  Time is the coin of a school’s realm.  How schools spend it reveals their values and priorities.

Charter schools generally have longer days than district schools.  The so-called “no excuses” schools — Achievement First here, and more famously Success Academies and KIPP elsewhere — have super long days, often 8:00 to 4:00 or more.  And so-called “progressive” charters use longer day to relax the schedule so both students and teachers can breathe, plan, catch up, and do time-consuming projects.  ICS sticks with the relatively short day of local district schools.

No one teaches or learns well when emotions or behavior are out of control.  

Darlene Pugnali, Assistant Director, emphasizes that ICS sets a high value on social-and-emotional-learning (SEL).  An SEL team — social worker, occupational therapist and others — meet weekly to case-manage kids and to balance their academics with adjusting conditions to help them manage their own emotions and behavior.  Self-management is far more critical to success, in all aspects of life, than advanced academics.  ICS spends much of the first six weeks of every school year establishing all manner of expectations about students controlling their bodies, understanding personal space, understanding others, using words to express emotion.  “It’s in every little thing we do.”

Kids learn social skills during social time like recess.

Many schools have eliminated recess outright, especially in urban areas.  As one superintendent says in a white paper, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”  The gross misuse of testing results has perverted schools’ interest in what used to be called “the whole child.”  Social time is sacrificed for instructional time, even though no evidence shows test-prep increases test scores.

Furthermore, kids have become harder to handle.  Fewer families teach and practice traditional essentials like politeness, manners and courtesy.  Rude behavior has risen at every socio-economic level — just ask teachers.  Aggressive video games and Facebook don’t help.  Sadly, recess is vulnerable to bullying and anti-social behavior.

So ICS teachers mill around the play areas with the students supervising, but at a distance.  The kids are free to make friends, create their own games, get into scrapes with one another, and figure out how to resolve them themselves.

ICS never withholds recess as punishment.  Kids need a break.  Rule-breakers have to face consequences, but losing recess is not one of them.

Many other school lunchtimes are run like drive-by troughs.

Some schools’ cafeterias are so small that students are batch-processed in separate shifts in tiny allotments of time.  Move ‘em out, take a quick swipe at the place, and it’s onto the next group.  Sure, adults sometimes eat lunch at their desks, but even then they’re not speed-scarfing food so they can fill up before getting kicked out.

ICS students eat at a leisurely, social pace.  Having recess first, though — a research-backed practice — means they’re hungry and get down to business.  But they can linger and talk if they like.  Once done, they’re still on downtime and can read color, draw, and fool around.

The last 10 minutes are truly meditative.  

Quiet time helps them transition back to learning and to their second language.  Teachers play music or read aloud.  No talking.  Maybe heads down on desk.  Just stop, breathe, collect yourself.

Darlene Pugnali says, “The other day I was in Portuguese class and the teacher had the kids stretching while a calm, taped voice took the kids through guided imagery designed for relaxing.”  It’s like Star Wars’ C-3PO shutting himself down before going back into the fray.

Schools can’t presume that kids will come with social skills or good self-management.  But schools can provide the time and supervision that allow kids to learn these things themselves.  ICS’s results, enumerated in last week’s column, speak for themselves.  These people are scholars of the value of time.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Overcoming the Tyranny of the High School Schedule

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Students are milling around the small fleet of vehicles in the parking lot of Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical School (BVTS).

Lacking professional uniforms, they clearly weren’t the dental assistants expected to go out to speak to middle-schoolers about oral hygiene.  If they were construction students they’d have tool belts.  The Heating and Air Conditioning students are scheduled to assess the air quality at a local elementary school, but that’s not today.

No, muses Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, the long-standing Superintendent of BVTS, shrugging.  He’s not sure which program these kids belong to or where they are going.  But he smiles with a tinge of triumph and asserts that wherever they’re going, they’ll get workplace experience.

Annually, BVTS students complete 600 to 800 projects out in their communities.  Some do one-off projects like building a boat ramp for a local Parks and Rec.  Others fill on-going internships at 30 different sites — hospitals, restaurants, and other real-world, adult workplaces.  “These are learning labs outside of campus.  The vans make it possible.”

Well, sort of.  The vans themselves were made possible by BVTS’s courageous leap away from the traditional high-school schedule.  Without flexible time, no need for vans.

All BVTS students alternate between a week of academics and a week devoted to their technical education.  So, for the week of tech, no one budges when the bell rings because they’ll keep on learning their craft or applying it.

Adult work doesn’t take place in 50-minute Carnegie units.  Real work — fixing cars, framing houses — can’t be stuffed into academic periods, between math and social studies.  The one week on and off schedule solves the maddening problem of liberating vocational work from suffocation by the 6 or 7-period schedule, left over from the Stone Age.

(The antiquated schedule is a pain not only for voc ed, but also for students taking college classes in “dual enrollment programs,” and kids pursuing increasingly popular independent studies called “extended learning opportunities.”  When, in a traditional school day, is there time to run off and take a college class or learn farming techniques on a farm?)

Fitzgerald says, “Before the days of high-stakes tests, the old rule for voc education was 50 percent in shop, 25 percent in related theory and 25 percent in academics.”

Well, the days of offering academics lite to any student are over.  BVTS’ students must meet industry standards in their technical field and achieve high academic expectations.  On the MCAS math test, 92 percent of the BVTS students are proficient.  State average is 78 percent.  Not bad for voc students.

Six common-planning areas provide meeting space so tech and academic teachers can ensure that students’ work experiences use and build on their academics, and vice versa.

Work is not only off-site.  Fitzgerald says, “The whole building is a teaching lab.”

Students in the dental program make mouth guards for their sports teams.  The on-site Three Seasons Restaurant, run by culinary students, made $90,000 last year.  (Which offsets the costs of things like those vans.)  The graphics and printing students make the restaurant’s menus, as well as doing commercial jobs for clients who have patience with the time it takes to get the work right.

Fitzgerald’s criteria for evaluating the value of a potential work experience are:

1.  The opportunity for rich learning

2.  Assurance of safety

3.  Assurance that students won’t be displacing workers in that industry.

Fitzgerald cautions, “When Public Works wants us to paint the white line in a road, after about a mile it’s no longer a learning experience but a prison project.  We’re always trying to get a balance of work experience and learning, without taking advantage of the kids.”

So sometimes the school says no.

For example, the culinary program generated a lot of waste, specifically saturated fats.  A teacher-led team of students figured out how to turn that liability into liquid hand soap.  You can buy it at the school store.  Johnson and Johnson, the big corporation, saw an opportunity and wanted to market the soap.  After much thought, the staff felt that designing a production system would be fabulous experience.  But once done, the grind of producing the soap in bulk would resemble that second mile on the white line.

Any kind of commercial design tends to take whatever time it takes.  During tech week, they have much-needed flexibility.

Actually many of Massachusetts’ other vocational schools also use the one-week on, one off schedule.  They are considered the best technical schools in the nation.  It’s possible they have better kids, teachers, buildings, curricula.

Or it’s possible their schedule gives students a more integrated picture of a work landscape where technical mastery depends heavily on academic skills.  BVTS’ students go to higher education in droves.  Those who don’t are desirable entry-level workers.

Radical educational creativity is not possible until schools loosen their vice grip on the lockstep traditional schedule.  It’s just a matter of time.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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