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Utica School District to use state grant to expand school day

Katie Keier

The Utica City School District received more than $4 million from the state to increase the number of hours kids are in school during the year, in an effort to increase the district's Common Core test scores. But the district still has to make a lot of decisions before starting the program.

Nine school districts in New York state were named as grant recipients, with Utica receiving the second biggest portion of the $24 million earmarked for the Extended Learning Time Initiative.

Five of the city's thirteen schools will participate, including the city's two middle schools, Donovan and John F. Kennedy; and three elementary schools, Conkling, Hughes and Kernan. The district proposes adding an hour-and-a-half to most school days and a four-week-long, half-day summer program. The five schools were chosen because they meet certain high-need criteria, like the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, and the number of students learning English as a second language or have disabilities. The criteria also takes into account how many students didn't perform well on the ELA and math assessments.

Carla Percia, director of grants for the Utica City School District, says those hours will be spent doing activities that tie into what students are already learning in the classroom.

"The test is more challenging now," Percia said. "It's more encompassing. It focuses on higher order thinking skills. We're not just talking about kids having recall now. We really need to have kids be able to reason and draw conclusions, etcetera. We're trying to prepare them for their life when they out of high school."

She adds that the district is planning creative methods to teach core subjects.

"What you're really trying to do is provide them with engaging activities that will strengthen those skills in mathematics and ELA, and really interdisciplinary, because they do filter through the other subjects," Percia said.

To keep the funding, the district needs to meet several requirements, including an average attendance of 90 percent.

The program is scheduled to begin Sept. 1, but the district is asking for a delay so that it can discuss the changes with teachers, including the addition of the extra hours. Percia says in the Utica Teachers Association's contract, the educators will be compensated for the extra time they spend in school. But she also mentions that other employees, like the principal, nurses and receptionists, all have to stay too.

Cherie Grant, with the Utica Teachers Association, says her members want to be a part of implementing the plan.

"What I'd like to think this program would do is, again, increase student achievement by presenting learning experiences in an after-school program setting," Grant said. "That they might not have as part of their daily instructional program."

Grant says after a difficult first year with the new Common Core curriculum, teachers want to sit down with district administrators and work out how the extra time will be used.

"I see in the end the extended learning day program a benefit to parents and their children that want to take advantage of these alternative learning experiences, if you will," Grant said.

The school district needs to have contract talks with the Utica Teacher's Union regarding their expanded hours. But with less than two months until the beginning of the school year, Percia says the district has asked the state to delay the program's start until the 2015 school year.

"We want our kids to be successful," Percia said. "So we just don't want to throw something together. We want it to be well thought out, because we really do think it'll make a difference."

The school district will start meeting with the teacher's union this week.