Guest Column

A Sustainable 24/7 Culture in the Schoolhouse

by Nic Clement

R ecently, I Googled the abbreviation 24/7 and received priority hits like supermarket, ATM, restaurants, concierge service and even an article on the transformation of Brooklyn, N.Y.

After scanning 10 additional 24/7 Google pages, I was struck by the fact that not one connection was made between schools and the 24 hours a day, 7 days a week service delivery model.

I impressed my 15-year-old daughter with my technology skills, using my Blackberry to access Wikipedia in my search for a remote association between 24/7 and schools. Again, not even one degree of separation.

I strongly believe if we are preparing students to be future ready, schools need to significantly expand their educational services and reinvent their role as a community center. We need to recognize that our competitive global economy demands more than the six-hour-a-day, nine-month schoolhouse. This prototype worked well for a country dominated by small family farms where children were needed to work after school and during the summer.

Obviously, our country and the world have changed, but have schools? Would you be shocked if you discovered this traditional education calendar provides serv-ices for a mere 12 percent of the total hours available in a year? I was more than stunned, so I decided our school district needed to begin our own 24/7 transformation.

During my three years as superintendent, I have worked with our school board, administrators and faculty to move toward adopting and implementing a 24/7 school district vision. As with any change, we have had to take risks, remove barriers and give up a number of long-held paradigms.

Community Access
A critical question in creating a 24/7 culture is “Who owns the school buildings and campus grounds?” The answer appears simple and obvious. The community holds title to all the schools, including the classrooms, athletic fields, playgrounds, cafeterias, computer labs, libraries and auditoriums. In reviewing our community access practices, I discovered the district’s actions did not always reflect this reality.

Community groups often were confronted with confusing paperwork and bureaucratic mazes when making requests to use classrooms or other facilities during nonschool hours.

Under my 24/7 initiative, community access to school facilities and recreational fields is an absolute priority. The district now has a streamlined process to include a one-page facility use application, which can be completed at the school site with preliminary approval authority being made on the spot by the principal without bouncing through other administrative layers. The school board adopted a new fee structure that provides nonprofit groups with break-even costs along with a policy of not charging groups that provide services directly benefiting the school district. This change resulted in community groups using the school facilities for more than 500 hours during the 2006-2007 school year.

Extending Days
Another essential attribute to the 24/7 schoolhouse includes a long-term commitment to offering tuition-free, high-interest after-school and summer academic enrichment programs. Even with lean district budgets, extended school days have become a reality through aggressively pursuing grants along with establishing and nurturing a strong joint venture between the district and a nonprofit community schools organization.

Since 2001, this partnership has resulted in after-school centers funded with more than $2.5 million in grants from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. These centers offer intensive academic tutoring, recreation and fine arts classes five days a week for three hours a day.

In addition, we have collaborated with our nonprofit partner to enhance all child-care programs by including a literacy component. We recently expanded our after-school programs to include a Future-Ready Mini-Grant Fund. Teachers can apply to the nonprofit organization to receive grants for developing innovative after-school programs.

An elementary teacher received one of these Future-Ready grants with the dream of having his students build a pond on a patch of dirt in front of his classroom. This project represented a true 24/7 approach, with students, teachers and volunteers working 6,000 hours after school and on weekends to complete the project. Today, this 13,000-gallon pond has created a vibrant ecosystem, which supports math, science and language-arts instruction.

Other 24/7 extended school partnerships include school-based mentoring with 100 students being matched with mentors from Big Brothers Big Sisters, K-12 summer camps and a summer school that serves more than 30 percent of our students.

Innovative Incubators
A sustainable 24/7 culture requires a district to take risks and invest in the future. This is often a major barrier for school districts under pressure to demonstrate significant short-term gains meas-ured solely by a state test. I have taken the lead from companies that create small innovation incubators within their organizations, allowing for the freedom to experiment without putting the company’s assets at great risk.

Recently, we initiated an innovation using hand-held computer technology and integrative curriculum software. The pilot involves 50 9th-grade students and five teachers receiving state-of-the-art handheld computers and wireless portable keyboards along with retrofitting a number of classrooms and campus areas with a wireless network. This technology, along with extensive training, will create and fit additional tiles into the 24/7 mosaic — the opportunity to work, research, communicate and learn at any time and in any place.

The transformation of our 24/7 school district culture is a work in progress toward my ultimate goal — a Google first-page hit in 2010 and being able to expand the 24/7 entry in the Wiktionary to include “round-the-clock services, as might be offered by the Flowing Wells School District.”

Nic Clement is superintendent of the Flowing Wells School District in Tucson, Ariz. E-mail: clementn@flowingwells.k12.az.us