Aurora summer program extends the year for some

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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”