12/05/2012 05:21 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Give Them More Time, and a Home Away From Home

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, where I work with some of the same students I started teaching four years ago, a new initiative was announced this week. The school day is about to get longer.

Lengthening the school day can be a long and contentious process. For families, a longer day can mean sacrificing free childcare provided by older siblings. For teachers, it can prevent them from picking up their own young children. For students, it can mean giving up part-time work. The resistance from all of these reasonable interests often kills extended day proposals on arrival.

Of course, advocating for more time doesn't even address how to implement an effective structure. If a longer day only means more test preparation instead of rich electives beyond the core curriculum, then I'm sure it will burn out teachers and students alike.

But the argument I'm making is more basic: simply having more time in the school building can protect students from whatever is waiting beyond school walls. We don't know everything that our children bring to the schoolhouse door, but when the last bell rings, we shouldn't be shoving out the ones who need us most. If we can agree on this truth, we can agree that an extended day -- especially in our low-income communities -- is worth a fight. I share my own story to show why I feel so strongly about redefining the school day.

During high school, I was fortunate enough to own a car. For $1,000, I bought a 1989 Acura Legend, which stalled out three days later in the middle of a drive-thru. My mother and I towed it back to the yard where we bought it. The next vehicle, a 1990 Honda Accord, lasted me almost until college. A car meant that I could go where I wanted to go, and it meant that I was an unlicensed taxi service for many of the kids in my after-school program of choice: band.

Band saved my life. During a time of great financial and personal stress -- my parents were in the middle of a messy divorce -- I had the option of staying at school until 8:00 p.m. I could put in a solid thirteen hours in my high school building, leaving only for dinner at McDonald's. I was able to stay because of the extraordinary and poorly-compensated dedication of our extensive band staff -- not only the director, but also the slew of additional instructors who supervised a serious musical operation. It wasn't uncommon for me to spend four or five hours a day hovering around the band room. Our school operated on a block schedule, so we already had an hour-and-a-half of practice time during the school day. After school, we started extra ensembles and wrote our own music. You could even take naps in the tuba closets.

If band hadn't been there to distract me from the problems at home, and from my silent struggle with my sexual orientation in the middle of the Bible Belt, I'm not sure how I would have muddled my way through adolescence. My family eventually lost our home to foreclosure; I attended UNC on a need-based scholarship. But instead of having to spend hours at home reflecting on how much life was about to change - -and how quickly I needed to grow up -- I was able to immerse myself in music.

Because my school district valued arts education, and valued funding these programs, I could pursue a passion as thoroughly as I wanted. Band was a chance to surrender, to focus on one foot in front of the other, to keep perfect time. It was a chance to live in the present, and a chance to quiet an infinite loop of worry. There were additional fees, sure, but we had fundraisers -- peanuts and turkeys and fruit baskets -- that taught us how to sell a product and how to support ourselves and an organization.

Looking back, it's obvious why I became a teacher, and why I now direct an after-school program for low-income, first-generation students. Autobiography easily explains my career choices; I work with students every day who aren't ready to go home. Yes, some of them have amazing, supportive families; I am proud to have one too. But the stress for our low-income students of living without money, without peace of mind, and sometimes without even physical safety demands alternatives to the 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. dismissal bell.

Participating in band was my choice -- no one forced me to do it. Here is where you might think my analogy falls apart. Aren't "reformers" merely taking choice away from families and communities? But to dismiss a district-wide school-day extension as forced reform is to ignore the reality of a low-income district such as Lawrence.

Since falling under state receivership, the Lawrence Public Schools have received a great deal of media attention and money. Outside organizations have been pouring in to pilot a plethora of solutions. Our Upward Bound program is a part of that patchwork and has been for twenty years. On our own, and with support from the district, we all do good things. But in the after-school hours, and in the summers, many, many students still go underserved.

What happens to the thousands of other students in Lawrence from 3 to 11 p.m.?

As the inevitable protests gear up, I think back to my own public high school as a place where I could go, and learn, and pursue my own interests. I find it hard to imagine any low-performing school district today allowing an hour-and-a-half of music instruction, every single day, on a traditional schedule. So it is my hope that more time will not simply boost test scores; it will allow all of our children to pursue a passion in a place that is safe and welcoming, a home away from home.