Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn spoke at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx on Monday.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a new phase in the Middle School Quality Initiative at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx.

For thousands of sixth-graders at 20 city middle schools, the school day is about to get a lot longer.

The schools will offer an hour of intensive literacy tutoring and 90 additional minutes of community-inspired programming such as yoga and gardening, as part of the city’s latest effort to spur improvements in the lowest-performing middle schools.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced today that they are adding 40 schools to the city’s two-year-old Middle School Quality Initiative. Twenty of those schools will be randomly chosen for the three-year extended day pilot program.

Walcott made middle schools his priority when he took office, rebranding  an initiative that Quinn had spearheaded as MSQI and expanding it to include focuses on literacy, teacher collaboration, and using data to drive instruction. Since then, MSQI has grown from 18 to 49 schools, and in the fall, it will include 89 schools.

“These two things together, a longer day and high needs intense literacy training … We know that’s part of the solution to get children reading on level,” said Quinn, who is running for mayor, at a press conference at one of MSQI’s original schools, Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx. “When you can read on level, the sky’s the limit.”

The city listed literacy as a top priority for the middle schools from MSQI’s start, but an exhaustive search last year for city schools that do literacy particularly well turned up no examples. Now, the department is partnering with a group that so far has specialized in math instruction, not literacy, to develop the curriculum for the extended day program.

Harvard University’s EdLabs — run by Roland Fryer, the sociologist whose studies have also brought the city experiments in performance pay — will work with the city to create the curriculum and train tutors to send into the schools. The paid tutors will each work with just four sixth-graders, and all sixth-graders will be required to spend an hour daily in tutoring sessions. EdLabs plans to measure the success of the literacy tutoring by comparing students with tutoring to students in similar schools without literacy tutoring.

To fill the other 1.5 hours of the extended day, the city is turning to a community-partnership model that some of its schools have used before. The After-School Corporation will work with the DOE to help schools bring in paid “community educators” from organizations such as the YMCA and Settlement Houses, according to TASC’s Susan Brenna. What a school offers in those 90 minutes will depend on what it wants to put its resources into and what community organizations have to offer, she said, citing service projects and gardening programs as examples that TASC has seen before.

Teachers at the schools may also choose to stay the extra hours, and they will be compensated for their time, Brenna added.

The MSQI expansion and extended day pilot program will cost $6.2 million. It’s being funded by $4.65 million in grants from the New York City Council, Robin Hood and the Carson Family Foundation. The DOE is also contributing $1.55 million.

Because the city and teachers union have not reached a deal on teacher evaluations, the city cannot compete for state funding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made available for schools who want to extend their days.

Extended day programs have drawn criticism for being too expensive for schools to fund without private donors. But Quinn said the city would come up with the funds if the pilot succeeds.

“Will it cost more money to take it citywide? Of course it will. But when we know it works, we’ll have to make it a priority and make that happen,” she said.

In a statement, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is also running for mayor, said the pilot program did not go far enough.

“Either you believe every child deserves a safe place to go after school or you don’t. We don’t need another pilot project or half-measure to prove these programs work,” he said. “What we need is the will to fund them and make them available to every working family.”

De Blasio has proposed a plan to fund extended learning time by taxing households who make more than $500,000 a year.

But another critic of past middle school improvement efforts said he was optimistic that the latest initiative could be different. Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor who chaired the City Council’s original middle school task force, said the extra time and formal literacy program could improve student performance the way that past city efforts have not.

Noguera, who sits on the The After-School Corporation board, said he is glad that community organizations will be brought into the schools.But he said he is concerned that intense tutoring at the end of a long day could turn students off.

“A lot of schools are already struggling with keeping kids engaged. To do another hour that they just had a full day of may not be something kids want to partake in. And it will be a lot of wasted money if kids don’t show up,” he said. “Hopefully people closer to the kids will understand it’s not simply a matter of grinding the information into their heads.”

City officials and advocates for extended learning time say they are not worried about demand.

“We do not expect parents to opt out,” Walcott said. “We see them saying give me more, more, and more.”