Iowa Education Officials Float Pilot To Improve Graduation Rates

A pilot program that would add before- and after-school learning for students is being pushed by Iowa education officials who believe such measures could boost graduation rates in the state. Some educators believe the program would be a step forward in curbing school drop outs, but such a program comes with expenses, and that may be the stumbling block towards the ambitious plan.

Reportedly, a budget request of $1 million asked by the state Department of education was submitted in November. However, Gov. Terry Branstad is yet to comment on whether he supports it.

The proposed program focuses on high-need students as a report commissioned by the state recommends. Three strategies are offered by the program: Providing additional academic activities before or after school for low-come children; offering summer instruction for children struggling with reading; or lengthening the school day for middle school students. According to the report, which was compiled by Des Moines-based consulting firm State Public Policy Group, the most successful strategy could then be replicated statewide.

According to SFGate, the measure shows that support for out-of-school learning is growing in Iowa according to proponents of such programs. Two literacy coaches were recently hired by the United Way of Central Iowa for its youth programs and in July, Des Moines Public Schools announced that they would increase extracurricular opportunities at its middle and high schools. As educators may recognize academic struggles early enough, some see it as a step toward fixing the problem of students dropping out of school.

"To fix that problem, it's going to take much more than to look at our schools," said Jodie Warth, chief professional officer with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Iowa. "Extended learning, in my mind, is just one of many arms that we can stretch out and wrap around our children to help them step up and succeed."

According to a 2011 study by the Massachusetts-based National Center on Time & Learning, 30 high-poverty schools in the country that added days or hours to their calendar improved math and reading scores. Overall, more than 1,500 schools are trying such methods-though that kind of programming comes with a price tag.

"There are two truths that can be said about extended learning time: No. 1, it does have a significant cost; and No. 2, if done well, it can have a significant, positive impact," said Mike Cormack, a state education policy liaison.

Whether the money needed for the pilot project will get approved still remains unclear. According to Linda Fandel, special assistant for education with the governor's administration, Branstad is still deciding what will go into his budget for fiscal 2015. Extended learning time will help the state as it works to close its achievement gap as some Iowa educators say. Superintendent of the Des Moines schools, Thomas Ahart, believe that educators need more time with a lot of students.

"A million dollars isn't much, but hopefully, if that's used to good effect, it will be a nice demonstration of what works for Iowa," he said.

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