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WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Innovative Tennessee School Could Teach the Nation a Thing or Two

May 26, 1997|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — At the witching hour of 3 p.m., when most schools are rolling up the gym mats and dimming the lights, the Cason Lane Academy here is exploding into a second shift of activity.

In Rebecca Jones' science club, a small group of students is dissecting a dogfish shark. Down the hall, students are working through piano lessons, drafting articles under the eyes of a former journalist and assembling recipe books with a cooking instructor. Kindergartners are gleefully preening in a puppet class. Outside, a dozen older kids are whacking golf balls with a seventh-grade teacher-turned-coach. "The bicycle club is going on today too," says Dave Burnham, who supervises Cason Lane's after-hours program, "but you've got to catch those as they pass by."

Welcome to the school of the 21st century. Cason Lane Academy is neither rich nor exclusive; it's a sparkling new public school serving middle-class students from kindergarten through the eighth grade. But it applies the Tower Records approach to education: It is open at least 12 hours daily every weekday of the year, except the six major holidays. With Americans worried about both the quality of education and the availability of day care, Cason Lane's comprehensive service points toward an obvious answer: Open the schools longer, for any student who needs--or wants--to be there.

"We need a school day and a school year that fit the needs of the modern economy and the modern home," said John Hodge Jones, the school superintendent who has championed the reform in this community of 55,000, located 30 minutes southeast of Nashville. "But the schools haven't faced competition, and they haven't changed."

Indeed, the standard seven-hour school day and nine-month calendar, originally constructed around the rhythm of the farm, hasn't changed much in a century. Meanwhile, the world has passed it by. In the past generation, the share of children living in single-parent families has doubled; so has the percentage of married mothers with young children who work outside the home. The result: About 24 million school-age children need afternoon day care. And while that need is burgeoning, most schools are dark after 3 and slumbering in the summer. "The buildings are there, the stuff is there, the kids need a place to be, but the connections just aren't being made," said Susan Gendrich-Cameron, the principal at Cason Lane.

Cason Lane isn't the only school making that connection. Cities from Los Angeles and New York to Madison, Wis., and Flint, Mich., keep some schools open late, particularly in low-income communities. But overall, government figures show that only about 30% of public schools offer any before- or after-school program--and many of those amount to little more than baby-sitting.

Cason Lane shows how the extra time can produce extra opportunity. Two breakthroughs set it apart: the breadth of its extended-day offerings and the extent of their integration into the basic school day. Like most after-school programs, Cason Lane uses college students, volunteers and teachers' assistants to supervise some classes after 3. But Gendrich-Cameron has reorganized teacher schedules so that as many as half of them also teach in the extended day. "We are a seamless program," she said.

The result is a modular vision of education that allows parents and students to customize their schedules. Cason Lane opens at 6 a.m. for parents on the early shift, but relatively few students arrive before 7--when band practice fires up and the cafeteria begins serving breakfast. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. the school offers a comprehensive academic program for all students. Then at 3, those who remain can choose from some 65 different classes--from remedial math to music, cooking, sports and a Lego club for the youngest.

Relatively few students remain after 5, but residual day care is available for parents who need it. At night, kids who have gone home for dinner buzz back into the building for basketball, soccer and baseball leagues. When the school is closed for vacation--it runs on a quarter schedule with four breaks spaced through the year--it fills the gap with academic, sports and specialty camps.

The menu is sufficiently intriguing that it attracts many parents who don't need to order from it. On any given day, about half of the school's 950 students participate in the extended-day activities. Parent surveys have shown that just over half of those students need day care; the rest simply want the extra academic and recreational opportunities. Many parents find both motivations equally compelling.

"It provides me with the extra child care I need," said Mary L. Austin as she picked up her son, Graham. "And even if he could go home, it's much more creative than sitting in front of the Nintendo and the TV."

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