In teacher Erin Autobee’s classroom at Aurora’s Jewell Elementary, 23 soon-to-be-third-graders hunched over their spelling test papers carefully writing out words like “hour,” “house” and “however.”

Rising second-graders at Aurora's Jewell Elementary take a spelling test during Fifth Block.
Rising second-graders at Aurora’s Jewell Elementary take a spelling test during Fifth Block.

It was just after lunch on a rainy Wednesday. A colorful row of backpacks hung against the wall and the daily schedule, printed neatly on a whiteboard, listed breakfast and lunch times, math and literacy blocks, three recesses, and finally bus departure at 3:12 p.m.

Pretty typical, except that outside this classroom, the hallways were dark and quiet. Most of Jewell’s students had begun their summer vacations the previous Friday.

The children in Autobee’s classroom, along with nearly 2,900 other students across the district, were participating in Fifth Block, an intensive month-long summer school program that started four days after the official last day of school.

Launched in 2008, the free, voluntary program targets rising first-graders to 10th-graders who struggle in math and literacy but have shown some growth during the previous year. They are not the lowest performers; most would fall into the second lowest tier if students were divided into four tiers based on academic performance.

At a time when national conversations about increasing instructional time are gaining momentum, Fifth Block provides a small-scale example of what an extended school year might look like and what kind of impact it could have.

While most students get about 10 weeks of summer vacation, Fifth Block participants get about five, most of that during July. Administrators say data shows that kids who participate demonstrate more academic growth than kids who don’t, particularly in math and writing.

🔗The origin of Fifth Block

Fifth Block came to life during the tenure of Superintendent John Barry, who will leave the district at the end of June after seven years at the helm.

He and other administrators wanted the new summer program to focus on kids who scored “partially proficient” on state tests and other assessments because those students didn’t receive the extra attention or small-group instruction that the lowest achievers receive during the school year.

“There was this group not receiving anything,” said Lisa Escarcega, the district’s chief accountability and research officer.

What they needed most, district leaders decided, was more time in front of an effective teacher. To make sure Fifth Block participants took advantage of the extra 23 days of instruction, administrators considered school-year attendance and behavior in deciding who to invite to the program. Overall, Fifth Block students have lower truancy and discipline referral rates than students districtwide.

For many students, Fifth Block is not a one-time intervention. In 2012, nearly one-third were participating for the second consecutive year and 10 percent for the third consecutive year.

Fifth Block students line up after lunch to go to a different classroom for the literacy portion of their day.
Fifth Block students line up after lunch to go to a different classroom for the literacy portion of their day.

“There will be some repeat students,” said Escarcega. “They need that extra time every single year.”

Aurora pays for Fifth Block, which costs about $1.5 million a year or $469 per student, primarily with funds from a 2008 mill levy. In years past, Title 1 funding has made extra slots available at some schools, but this year sequestration forced the district to reduce the number of spots by about 500.

🔗More structure, more familiarity

Although a couple elementary schools offer science as part of Fifth Block, most schools focus exclusively on math, reading and writing. There are no specials, electives or field trips.

Misty Louihis, who teaches math to Fifth Block students at Jewell, said the district’s previous version of summer school was less structured, included field trips and had more of an enrichment focus. With Fifth Block, she said teachers get more direction on content, pacing and goals than before.

“It’s more effective, definitely,” she said.

Another hallmark of Fifth Block is that most students attend classes at their home schools with teachers they already know or at least have seen around the building. The only exceptions to that are students going into sixth and ninth grades, who attend Fifth Block at the middle and high schools they will attend in the fall.

The home school format is meant to make students comfortable and save teachers from having to get to know a completely new set of kids in a short time frame. The continuity that can result is evident in the experience of eight-year-old Ava Carballo, who will enter third grade at Jewell in the fall. She had Louihis for Fifth Block last summer, then for second grade. She now has Louihis for the math portion of Fifth Block and will have her again when Louihis “loops” to third grade in the fall.

Carballo, who is in Fifth block with about eight of her second-grade classmates, said she was happy to be invited to the program again.

“It’s fun to go to Fifth Block to learn stuff. It helps you be ready for your next grade.”

🔗Assessing the impact

girls standing in classroom
Girls in Fifth Block gather their belongings after their morning math session.

Overall, Fifth Block seems to make a difference for most participants, accelerating their academic gains and reducing “summer slide.” According to 2012 state test scores, Fifth Block students in six of seven grade levels demonstrated growth higher than the state median in writing. In math the same was true for students in five of seven grade levels and in reading for four of seven grade levels.

“We’ve been happy we’re improving each year,” said Escarcega.

Aside from the quantitative data, surveys of teachers, principals and parents indicate widespread satisfaction with the program. Last year, 86 percent of principals and parents and 92 percent of teachers reported that Fifth Block was academically beneficial for their students.

A number of studies confirm the connection between increased learning time and increased academic achievement and policy-makers have emphasized the potential of extended learning models for low income children. In addition to entering school with lower skills, they often lack access to out-of-school enrichment activities available to their more affluent peers.

“School is the only vehicle for them to accelerate,” said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning.

It’s no surprise then that many schools with extended school days or years enroll large numbers of high-needs students.  The center’s 2012 “Mapping the Field” report found that 72 percent of 1,002 “expanded-time” schools were in urban areas and 58 percent serve populations where 75 percent or more students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Among Aurora’s 36,000 students, about 69 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals and among Fifth Block participants, the proportion is 85 percent. In addition, 55 percent of Fifth Block participants are English Language Learners, compared to 38 percent districtwide.

🔗Extended school year for all?

While Fifth Block lengthens the school year for only a fraction of Aurora students, it has prompted conversations about the possibility of someday extending the year for all students.

“It blends into the current conversations about extended learning,” said Deputy Superintendent William Stuart. “From a cultural standpoint, it’s established…this notion that the last day of school is not really the last day of school.”

Davis said increasingly there is less resistance from parents and the general public to extended learning options such as a longer school year.

“We’re going to see more and more experimentation,” she said. “What’s really starting to emerge is that the American school schedule hasn’t modernized as it needs to.”

That said, schools that have lengthened their school day far outnumber those that have extended their school year. The center’s Mapping the Field report found that only 21 percent of expanded-time schools had school years at least 10 days longer than surrounding schools. On average, expanded-time schools, a majority of which are charter schools, had 184-day school years, not dramatically different from the traditional 180-day calendar used in many districts.

In Aurora, some of the logistical challenges that can make an extended school year difficult, have already been addressed. For example, all district schools are air-conditioned, alleviating concerns about students sweating it out in hot, stuffy classrooms. In addition, when Fifth Block was devised, the school calendar was adjusted so school starts in early August and ends in late May, thus allowing Fifth Block to unfold without veering into the prime vacation month of July.

Still, money remains a huge stumbling block, even for the modestly-sized Fifth Block. Administrators say there are more “partially proficient” students who could benefit, but limited funding ties their hands.

Louihis said while she wishes there were another 25 slots at her school to go with the 50 they have now, she isn’t sure an extended year for all students is the way to go.

“The best part of Fifth Block is we really have that filter of who comes,” she said, noting that most students are responsible, self-directed and want to be there. “The change of population is nice because we can get more done.”