It’s 1:29 p.m. on a March Monday, and for a few blissful minutes, the cafeteria at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, will remain empty and quiet. Refrigerators whir. The kitchen staff set up trays for the buffet.
At 1:34, the double doors burst open with a stampede of more than 100 fifth graders. The decibel level skyrockets as children run to claim tables, their sneakers squeaking with every step. They’re late, and they know it. Now they’ll have just 26 minutes to take seats, line up under the direction of strategically-placed lunch moms, get food from the buffet, sit down again, eat, line up again, zoom up four flights of stairs, and be seated in their homerooms by 2.
For the five fifth graders who are part of a Monday lunchtime extracurricular club, that rush presents even greater challenges. Every Monday from 1:30-2, the four girls and one boy – each selected in January as a representative from their fifth-grade section – participate in mural club. Three visiting graduate students from Columbia University are guiding the kids as they create a website to pay digital homage to the many colorful murals that line the halls inside and walls outside P.S. 24; it’s a legacy project for the fifth grade class of 2011, who will graduate in June and move on to local middle schools in September.
They’re sent to the front of the lunch line, but it’s 1:40 by the time the kids meet up, trays in hand, with their grad student mentors. It’s 1:42 when they settle around the round table in Assistant Principal Rose Silva’s office. For a minute the mood is meditative, with the kids enjoying the calm as they savor their first bites of chicken nuggets and take swigs out of mini milk cartons.
The agenda for the day’s meeting was two-fold. First, the kids would brainstorm their favorite examples of public art, monuments, and murals. Next, they’d begin their journey in becoming mural experts via guided research on library computers.
The brainstorming was a smash hit, with students calling out pieces of art they like and places they wanted to visit. None of the kids had been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just a subway-ride away. “Field trip!” said one. “Yeah, yeah!” chimed in others. “Ooh, what about the Leaning Tower of Pizza?” the bubbliest of the girls said, to everyone’s amusement since Pisa, not Pizza, is an Italian city.
And as quickly as the momentum had built, it was forcibly toppled. At 1:58, the kids ran downstairs to toss their trays in the cafeteria trash and hurry back up to homeroom.
As for the library visit, maybe next week. The 30-minute meeting had effectively been reduced to just 16.
Some would argue that 16 minutes a week of arts-inspired extracurricular exploration is better than none at all. But that perspective fails to consider the constant rushing of the kids, the disappointment of overfilled agendas, and the increasing risk that the project will need to be scaled back.
In the world of elementary school activities, time is of the essence. And at P.S. 24, there isn’t enough of it.
In some ways it’s a nice problem to have. P.S. 24 is an average-performing school according to the latest New York City Progress Report, on which it earned an overall grade of C. But it’s an average school that wants to be a top school, and is moving in that direction; despite the cumulative C, P.S. 24 received a B for progress and an A for environment in 2009-2010 school year.
At dual-language P.S. 24, nearly 90 percent of the mostly Hispanic students are eligible for free lunch, which means they come from families that make up to a maximum of 30 percent more income than the federal poverty rate; foster children and children in families receiving food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are eligible, too.
Forty-seven percent of P.S. 24 students are certified English Language Learners, and 21 percent have Individualized Education Programs to address special learning needs. Part of Principal Christina Fuentes’ strategy for overcoming these obstacles is to supplement her curriculum with as many programs and services as she can fit into the day. The school has an artist-in-residence program, a healthy eating program, a socio-emotional learning initiative to promote healthy attitudes and behaviors, a theater project, a peer mediation group, community service, and more. And that’s just for the kids. Many more programs help parents, teachers, and administrators.
With just six and a half hours in a school day, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to fit everything in. What’s even harder is figuring out what to do about it. If President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have their way, school time would be expanded; in the fall, they unveiled a campaign to push for more school hours for American children. It’s not clear how that would work. It might mean weekend school, shorter breaks, or the most likely option, longer school days.
Advocates of successful charter schools have long cited extended school days as a key element in their performance. But they don’t all believe that the same would be true in non-charter public schools; in the case of average- or poor-performing schools, in fact, some argue that longer school days would be detrimental to kids.
“The issue is not charters vs. non-charters,” explained Michael Weinstein, senior vice president at the Robin Hood Foundation. “The issue is whether mediocre or worse schools ought to be allowed to capture more of a student’s precious time if the school has not proven it knows how to use the extra hours to the students’ substantial academic advantage. Some charters like KIPP and some non-charters pass that test. Many charters and non-charter schools do not.”
But for P.S. 24, an average-rated school aspiring to be a great school, the impact of added time – for extracurriculars, academics, or a combination – remains unknown. As of April 2011, there are no federal guidelines for extended school days, and any time beyond 3p.m. that a child remains in the building is strictly optional.
“Enrollment in charters is generally voluntary,” Weinstein added. “Enrollment in non-charters is, in effect, mandatory. That makes the case for requiring extended hours in non-charter schools less attractive.”
For now, the mural club kids will continue to work with the time they have. The project is unlikely to be everything they hoped it would be, but the coordinators are confident the kids will leave with a sense of pride in their work and passion for the arts. Here’s hoping they make it to the Met, and maybe one day to the Leaning Tower of “Pizza” – or even Pisa itself.