12/15/2010 03:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pursuing Educational Excellence for Every Student

As Superintendent of the Sheridan School District in Denver, Colorado, I truly believe in the things we do for our students. I believe we are true to our core belief that all children can learn; I believe we continue to put the best interests of our students first; and I believe we are committed to providing unmatched professional development for our teaching staff. These are the right things to do for our students, and I am proud of our district for making them a priority. But what I may be most proud of is our recent implementation of an extended learning day to increase student achievement and close the opportunity gap that exists for children of low-income families.

About a year ago, the Colorado Department of Education contacted me because one of our schools, Fort Logan Elementary, was eligible to apply for a federal grant targeting school turnaround. Sheridan is a low-income community where over 45 percent of the population is living below the poverty line and as many as 15 percent of our students can be classified as homeless. We owe it to our students, their families, and this community to pursue every opportunity to bring additional funding into our schools.

Likewise, we owe it to these same groups to explore any opportunity to continuously improve the quality of education. After all, Fort Logan's eligibility for the turnaround grant was predicated by shockingly low levels of student growth during a period between 2006 and 2009. Given that only one in eight children who are not reading at grade level by third grade ever have a chance to catch up, the continued lack of adequate yearly progress coming from grades three through five at Fort Logan illustrated the district's failure to meet its responsibility to properly prepare its students for a highly-competitive global economy that requires mastery of 21st century skills. When I became superintendent in the fall of 2008, we were successful in quickly shaking up a complacent and complicit culture. We felt we were already on the brink of turning things around. So when the turnaround grant presented itself, we felt ready for it.

The district immediately began an extensive planning effort that included parents, staff, and a series of national educational organizations to ensure that the students of Sheridan would truly benefit from our turnaround plan. Our planning process included studying best practices from schools across the country, including the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time schools. The result was the highest scoring grant application in Colorado and approximately $2.4 million over a three-year period for Fort Logan Elementary to implement the turnaround model for school improvement. The most innovative and highly-anticipated component of our final plan of record was the introduction of an extended learning day at Fort Logan.

Our Expanded Learning Time (ELT) program was designed with three specific goals in mind: 1) ensure the success of each and every one of our students by strengthening and expanding opportunities for learning, 2) provide teachers with more time to teach, collaborate, and plan, and 3) create a systemic approach to addressing issues relating to poverty, limited early opportunity, and impoverished language that can be sustained and anchored into the community culture.

In October, we launched our Expanded Learning Time program at Fort Logan. As part of the program, the end of the school day has been extended from 3:15 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. on every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday when school is in session. By the end of this school year, this will result in 72 extended days and an additional 126 hours of instructional time. Based on our preliminary plans, we anticipate totaling nearly 300 extended days and an additional 540 hours over the next three years.

Through the network of community partners that we brought in to support ELT, students enjoy a hands-on science program provided by the Sangari Group and a series of enrichment classes during this time, including martial arts, drumming, visual arts, dance, strategic games, and technology among others. So while the students are receiving meaningful instruction, they are also having a lot of fun, developing deeper background knowledge, and being introduced to an array of life skills. This is the key to closing the opportunity gap that exists in low-income areas.

Recently, the newly-formed Colorado Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) Commission visited us to see our Expanded Learning Time program firsthand. The commission is working to expand the vision for the entire learning experience in ways that transcend the traditional school day and traditional classroom models. Their visit was an absolute success. The commission's members were amazed by what we had achieved after only a few weeks and how the students were still energized, engaged, and invested at the end of an almost nine-hour day. The commission also acknowledged the value of the additional collaboration time for teachers occurring during these same extended hours. The school's teachers are paid an additional stipend for this extended work day.

But more importantly, this same type of positive feedback has been echoed by our parents who have quickly come to understand what an incredible opportunity the ELT program provides for their children.

Frankly, I am amazed at how far we have come over the past year. From concept to reality, it has been quite a journey. The true measure of our efforts rests in the results we produce. In the short-term, that is reflected in student growth data; in the long-term, the measure is high-quality post-secondary options for ALL of our students. Regardless, we are done failing our students and our community.

While we are not alone in our progressive thinking about traditional educational systems, I believe that Sheridan is at the forefront of what public education might very well look like everywhere in the not-so-distant future. I believe in the value of our Expanded Learning Time program, and, yes, I am very proud of the things we are doing for students here in Sheridan.