We heart Elm City Prep in New Haven: Blog 1 of 3

Kate and I spent a great Monday morning in New Haven. We saw Day 1 of kindergarten. Fantastic. 1. Amazing Execution

Because it's only a day for the new kids, several teachers are in each classroom. A kid is teary; someone to hug him. A kid isn't following directions; someone to step in and model the right way.

Parents welcomed with open arms. They can be in classrooms with kids, take some photos of Junior's first day. They can mingle with other parents in another room with coffee and stuff.

A kid doesn't show up; the principal, Morgan Barth, is on the phone to Mom.

After a few courtesies: "Frankly, I'm a little disappointed. You and I had discussed last week the details and how important the first day is. A teacher and our social worker will be at your home in 10 minutes. They will drive him here. We really need your son to be dressed and ready for school. This can't happen again."

2. Kid's Schedule

During the first couple weeks, they work on procedures. How to walk quietly in line. How to eat breakfast without making a mess. Etc.

Once the regular schedule starts, this is a typical day:

7.25 to 7.55 breakfast and morning work 7.55 to 8.30 morning meeting

8.35 to 9.50 reading instruction: lots of phonics


10.10 to 11.25 guided reading


12.15 to 1.10 writing


1.20 to 1.35 vocab

So the first 3 hours and 40 minutes is reading and writing. Then:

1.35 to 2.25 math

2.30 to 3.10 art, music, gym

3.15 to 3.55 science

I mentioned that 3 years ago I visited Elm City Prep with a couple Boston educators. Principal and teacher. (I was hoping that seeing the amazing literacy levels of these inner-city kids would move them; the principal was impressed, the teacher hated it). That school is persistently low-performing, 3 years later.

This is a sample kindergarten schedule of that school, taken from their website:

9:15am-9:45am Breakfast and Choice Time

9:45am-10:00am Greeting and Introduction to daily OWL literacy centers

10:00am-11:00am OWL Choice Time (Dramatic play--pizza shop, making pizza dough, dishwashing in the water table, painting, white board letter practice, stationery making)

11:00am-11:15am Story Time (A Letter to Amy by Erza Jack Keats)

11:15am-11:35am OWL Small Groups

11:35am-12:05pm Recess

12:05pm-12:45pm Lunch & Independent/Lap reading

12:45pm-1:30pm Art

1:30pm-1:50pm Building Blocks math

1:50pm-2:45pm Rest

2:45pm-3:30pm Building Blocks work time

3. Schedule differences: two kindergartens, similar kids

Elm City has an 8 hour school day, versus 6 in the other school. So 33% more time.

Even with the most generous possible accounting, the Boston school has 2 hours of time for reading and writing, and Elm City has 3 hours 40 minutes. Hmm. That's 83% more time for the Elm City kids.

Even that 83% probably understates the Elm City "dosage" advantage.

From the Boston school's description of OWL learning time, it seems like some stuff labeled as "literacy" is kids playing, maybe acting out stories. Not actually, you know, reading. Here's how the Boston school describes its approach for kids aged 3, 4, and 5:

We adopted OWL (Opening the World of Learning) Pre-Kindergarten curriculum in all of its Pre-K classrooms. OWL is an integrated curriculum designed to develop language and early literacy skills through exploring rich content areas including math, science and social sciences. The OWL curriculum consists of six units, each with a theme, explored through intensive readings of carefully chosen read-alouds. Combining academic work and play, these books inspire student-initiated academic choices.

We pair the OWL curriculum with the Building Blocks math curriculum, which includes similar student-initiated centers, empowering students to make choices and take ownership for their own learning as early as age three.

4. The Amazing Thing

A big study* of Boston charter schools "found", indeed, that it was extended learning time that explained the charter advantage.

But what do you think better explains the difference? Amazing execution? Or more raw time?

If you could get 6 hours of Elm City, or 8 hours of the Boston school, which would you pick for your kid?

I'd pick Elm City, because they obsess over the question: how do we put our teachers in the best possible position to succeed? And they have a concrete approach. Which I'll blog about next.

*I think the study gets it wrong. They argue that leader autonomy is the key ingredient. But both of these schools have full autonomy. Te Boston school I'm describing is a pilot (in-district charter school).

Then they study authors argue effective charter leaders use that autonomy to extend the day. True, but less important. Those same leaders would emphasize they use the autonomy to build a group of teachers who row in the same direction, all obsessively committed to a positive, disciplined culture. A bad culture spread across 8 hours isn't much better than the same thing stretched over 6 hours.