Originally created 09/16/97

Schools trying to teach students more subjects

COLUMBIA - Trying to squeeze in classes such as foreign language and computer skills during an already busy school day used to be a problem only high school students faced.

Now that dilemma has trickled down to the elementary level and districts are proposing some creative solutions; some might even lengthen the school day.

"The elementary day has changed," said John Robinson, the state Education Department's director of organizational development. "Elementary schools have become much more centers of cultural learning and information-gathering."

In the past year, the department has eased rules about devoting a certain number of minutes per week to the three Rs. That gave districts freedom to build their own schedules to fit in new material without sacrificing the basics.

"They don't want to lose the importance of that, but they still want to implement the creative programs that give them balance," Mr. Robinson said.

Lynne Demarais teaches her fourth-grade students even as they stand in the hall at Red Bank Elementary, asking them to spell a word or solve a math problem.

"We use every second of the day," Ms. Demarais said.

Lexington District 1, which includes Red Bank among its nine elementary schools, is bursting out of its 32-hour week.

Roberta Ferrell, director of elementary curriculum, said the district decided to tackle the problem because scheduling had become such a headache.

"You're not making decisions on what's best educationally but what will work logistically," Ms. Ferrell said.

While a committee of administrators, principals and teachers studies the options, Ms. Demarais fights the daily battle.

"Our curriculum says you must teach X, Y and Z," she said. "We try very hard to get everything in, but it's frustrating because sometimes the day is too short."

The committee has suggested some timesavers, including reducing announcements and assembly programs, scheduling lunch and recess together and reducing the number of class changes.

Ms. Ferrell said she expects discussion to heat up as a long-term solution - adding 30 minutes to the six-hour day - is studied more closely.

"Would I love 30 more minutes in a day? Yes," Ms. Demarais said. "If it's active and hands-on time, it would be wonderful."

But Gwen Mochak, who teaches third-graders at Red Bank Elementary, is not so sure. "Kids are not capable of staying focused for a longer day," she said.

A longer day also could pose new problems - reconfiguring bus schedules and routes, for instance.

"Thirty minutes is no magic bullet, but it would give us enough flexibility to look at other options," Ms. Ferrell said.


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