Center for American Progress

All Hands on Deck: How Expanded Learning Time and Community Partners Can Benefit Students

All Hands on Deck: How Expanded Learning Time and Community Partners Can Benefit Students

Policymakers and educators can greatly enhance the academic experience and success of their students by lengthening time spent in school and forging partnerships with like-minded community actors.

Conrad Kehn helps students compose during music class at Cole Elementary in Denver, Colorado. (AP/Brennan Linsley)
Conrad Kehn helps students compose during music class at Cole Elementary in Denver, Colorado. (AP/Brennan Linsley)

Significantly lengthening the school day is a promising strategy to close achievement and opportunity gaps that must be considered by state, district, and school leaders who serve large numbers of low-income students. Fortunately, there is already a growing movement among policymakers and educators to increase the amount of in-school time devoted to teaching students the 21st century skills needed for future success. In 2013, a total of 33 states considered legislation related to expanded learning time. What’s more, a recent count identified more than 1,500 expanded learning time schools, of which approximately 900 were traditional public schools.

Schools across the country are engaged in the complete redesign of the school day in ways that increase learning time. Effectively closing achievement and opportunity gaps, however, requires more than simply tacking on additional minutes at random. Schools should explore ways to use more time to focus on core academics and enrichment activities—such as art, music, apprenticeships, and sports—that provide a well-rounded education, as well as to provide teachers with more time for collaboration, planning, and professional development. Expanded learning time schools are using a variety of strategies to lengthen the day, from staggering staff schedules to keeping some staff in place for longer periods of time. What can often be overlooked in this mix of approaches is the extent to which community partners can enhance the offerings in schools that lengthen the day. When the two form authentic partnerships based on a school’s goals, student needs, and constant evaluation of student data, expanded learning time schools and community partners can develop a promising all-hands-on-deck approach to student learning.

More learning time with enrichment can offer students a well-rounded education

A report by the National Center on Time & Learning identified eight important practices that were used effectively by 30 high-performing schools with longer days. One practice was using time to provide a well-rounded education. According to the report, many of the schools “placed a premium on providing a broad array of learning opportunities in such areas as the arts, foreign languages, hands-on science, business, community service, and leadership.” Providing these sorts of enrichment activities is where key community-based actors can create strategic partnerships with schools that lengthen the day and have a substantial impact on students at all grade levels.

Lengthening the school day to ensure that high school students are college and career ready, while also exposing them to a breadth of enrichment activities, can be particularly challenging. From having more options for extracurricular activities to needing to work part time, engaging high school youth during an extended school day must necessarily take a different and more flexible tack than approaches used to target their younger peers. Golder College Prep, a high school in Chicago, Illinois, is meeting this challenge. Students there are exposed to an array of enrichment activities, which allows them to meet the school’s 200-hour enrichment-activity requirement. Community service, which is also a requirement, is met through partnerships with various off-campus service sites where students learn about different social issues. Finally, the school partners with different community organizations such as Summer of a Lifetime, which provides students with an opportunity to enroll in college courses outside Chicago. Here, students spend two to eight weeks enrolled in college courses at institutions across the country that are either focused on a specific subject or organized to expose students to a variety of classes.

More learning time with community partnerships can provide more time for teachers

Using community partnerships strategically can also free up teachers’ time during the day, giving them more time to plan the next week’s lesson or to collaborate with other teachers. For instance, staff from community-based organizations might come to a school to teach an art class during the day, leaving teachers with more time in school to grade papers or review student data. Providing teachers with more time during the regular school day is of particular importance, as 45 states and the District of Columbia implement the Common Core State Standards, arguably the most challenging standards for English language arts and math expectations in decades.

The impact of this partnership on teachers is a feature at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston, Massachusetts. The school used School Improvement Grant funds to significantly expand the school day and to turn around the chronically underperforming school. As part of that expansion, weekly, 100-minute, highly structured teacher-collaboration meetings were introduced. Teachers use these meetings as a time to plan lessons, share best practices, improve instruction, and transition to the Common Core State Standards. At Orchard Gardens, sixth- and seventh-grade students who need extra help with homework or reading work with a Citizen Schools teacher for more academic support and enrichment. Citizen Schools is a national organization that expands the school day for middle school youth.

Community-based partners can make expanded learning time cost effective

Finally, partnering with community organizations can do more than benefit students and teachers; it can also lower the overall cost of implementing an expanded school schedule. A Center for American Progress report found that schools that primarily rely on contractors and community partners during expanded time typically pay only some school staff extra hourly salaries to coordinate the program; the majority of the extra time is provided through an outside partner. The cost associated with taking this approach to increased time allows schools to lower overall expenses.

Successful partnerships have common features and face similar challenges

Findings from a report that examined partnerships between expanded learning time schools and community organizations suggest that the most successful partnerships bring new knowledge and approaches to the school day, influence multiple stakeholders, display flexibility on both sides, and are supported by a clearly delineated management structure. Partnerships require extensive planning, assessment, and revision in order to work effectively. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that managing these partnerships can be challenging. Schools and partner organizations included in the study reported that collaboration was often met with issues involving financing and sustainability, along with issues defining outcomes to measure success and aligning partner programs with a school’s instructional focus. As with any critical partnership, challenges can be overcome with tenacity and a deep commitment to a common goal. Two examples presented below demonstrate how strong school-community partnerships can work effectively to help improve outcomes for students.

Roger Williams Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island

Providence, Rhode Island’s, Roger Williams Middle School—a turnaround school where the majority of students are poor, with many coming from non-English-speaking homes and nearly one-quarter receiving special-education services—collaborates with three community partners to provide students with a robust arts program, which is integrated throughout the school’s curriculum, along with a variety of after-school offerings.

Using School Improvement Grant funds, which require schools to implement comprehensive reforms to boost student achievement—including increased learning time—Roger Williams partners with Providence ¡CityArts! for Youth. ¡CityArts! uses an AmeriCorps grant that allows fellows to work as teaching artists who work closely with the school’s three art teachers. The fellows, who are typically college graduates with an interest in the arts, also work as arts-integration specialists to the academic classroom teachers. Here, the fellows help fully integrate arts into the academic curriculum.

Roger Williams is also an AfterZones hub for South Providence and partners with the Providence After School Alliance and the Boys and Girls Club of Providence to offer an array of after-school activities that range from field trips to drumming circles to jewelry design workshops.

Finally, partnering with a local high school, Roger Williams’s students have mentors—older high school students—who help them strengthen their knowledge and skills. These high school students serve as teaching assistants as part of an internship program. The older students not only support Roger Williams’s teachers but also earn school credit.

The turnaround efforts appear to be paying off, and the school’s collaboration with partners has likely contributed to this success, among many other factors. Based on a review of 2013–2014 grade-level reports of the New England Common Assessment Program, Roger Williams has large numbers of low-achieving students; however, the school has seen modest improvements in student achievement—with larger percentages of students scoring at higher proficiency levels in fall 2013 than in previous years.

Elmhurst Community Prep in Oakland, California

Elmhurst Community Prep, or ECP, located in Oakland, California, is a prime example of how a strategic community partnership benefits both teachers and students. In 2010, ECP was designated as one of the state’s “persistently lowest achieving schools,” which led to several reform efforts aimed at increasing student achievement. Similar to Roger Williams Middle School, ECP also used School Improvement Grant funds to lengthen the school day. Relying primarily on Citizen Schools, a national organization that uses a mix of AmeriCorps members, aspiring teachers, and community volunteers to expand the learning day for low-income middle school students, ECP is able to provide students with 12 additional hours of learning per week.

Featured in a new National Center on Time & Learning study, ECP’s partnership with Citizen Schools also provides a multipronged strategy to increase its staff while ensuring that programming offered through Citizen Schools is aligned with what is learned during the school day. A highlight of the partnership is a “nested” teacher-training program whereby six full-time AmeriCorps members—funded in part by that national service program—pursue their own teaching credentials, working closely with certified ECP teachers to gain valuable experience. What’s more, the arrangement gives regular teaching staff more time to meet daily for planning and provides one additional hour of professional development that is in addition to the district’s regular early release day. ECP teachers have a weekly total of six-and-a-half hours of collaboration and professional-development time.

Approximately 70 percent of ECP students—including the entire sixth grade and most of the seventh grade—participate in Citizen Schools programming, which includes literacy and science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM-focused apprenticeships in web design, robotics, and journalism, to name a few. Students also receive about 90 minutes of academic support per day, such as tutoring and homework help. Students not participating in Citizen Schools programming attend an after-school program run by the Bay Area Community Resources, a local nonprofit organization that offers an array of academic help and enrichment activities, including sports and arts. Over the first two years of the Citizen Schools expanded learning time partnership, the school’s proficiency rate in English language arts increased by eight percentage points. And during the 2012-13 school year, a larger proportion of students scored at proficient or advanced in math than in the previous school year.


As schools contemplate expanding the school day for student learning, they should consider how partnering with community organizations can enhance and support their efforts. Strong partnerships with an array of community actors that are focused on a school’s overall goals, student needs, and data analysis can yield strong outcomes for students while also providing teachers with more time for planning, collaboration, and professional development. The schools highlighted here offer examples of how authentic partnerships can work and work well. However, schools and community organizations looking to work together should be aware that managing and sustaining these partnerships can prove complex and challenging. A CAP report, “Expanded Time, Enriching Experiences: Expanded Learning Time Schools and Community Organization Partnerships,” offered several recommendations for policymakers, districts, schools, and community organizations that are considering partnerships to significantly increase learning time, including:

  • Schools should use a data-driven process to select partners that can enhance and deepen their instructional focus and/or meet students’ nonacademic needs.
  • Schools should consider including partner staff in school-based professional development and planning.
  • Organizations looking to partner should assess their ability to serve all the youth in the school.
  • Partner organizations should consider whether the school has the leadership, resources, staff capacity, time, and willingness to focus on the partnership.
  • Policymakers should develop explicit strategies to ensure that expanded learning time partnerships are funded adequately and sustainably.
  • Policymakers should ensure that technical assistance focused on expanded learning time implementation includes external partners as well as school and district leadership.

As more districts and schools consider lengthening the school day to help close achievement and opportunity gaps, they should consider engaging in authentic partnerships with community organizations. When implemented well, these partnerships can expand opportunities for students and support teachers.  

Tiffany D. Miller is the Associate Director for School Improvement at the Center for American Progress. 

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Tiffany D. Miller

Director, Education Innovation