RI school looks to make strides with Saturday class

West Warwick, R.I. – While most kids are eating cereal and watching cartoons, up to 60 students in West Warwick are headed to Horgan Elementary School for extra help in English and Math. Here's seven-year-old Crystal Cabral:

"We play gym after we eat snack but we have to do something before snack like do math. And then we have snack and then we go to gym," Crystal says. "It's kind of fun."

Crystal's mom, Cara Nobels, says Saturday class has been very helpful for her daughter. She says it's improved Crystal's reading and that it gives her daughter a chance to get out of the house.

Saturday school in West Warwick is for students who are falling behind. Some advocates of school reform believe that more time in the classroom will boost achievement in towns like this one, a working class community trying to reinvent itself to better compete in the high-tech 21st century.

Six years ago, Principal Donna Peluso wanted to set up an afternoon program for struggling students. The problem was convincing kids to sign up.

"They really didn't want to come in the afternoon because I think honestly they were just tired," Peluso said. "So I asked teachers about it and so some of them said, You know what? At the end of the day, at 3:15, we're tired too.' So I said How about if we try, let's come to school on Saturday?'"

On Saturday teachers say students are better rested. They also like the time to work with just a few students.

Reading consultant Lynn Dion is a regular at Saturday school. She says it contributes to a sense that expectations are high for everyone, which is important at a school where 2/3rds of students come from low income families.

"No matter what their situation is, you have to really tell them that when you come to school it's time to learn and things might have been difficult last night or whatever, but when we're here, this is what we need to do," Dion says. "That's what pays off."

But it's hard to say whether Saturday school is paying off enough. Teachers say students who do it make improvements. In the most recent round of state testing, 69 percent of Horgan students were proficient in reading, an increase of 10 percent since 1997. But that's still slightly below the state average. And Math scores have remained flat, hovering just over 50 percent.

"Time doesn't equate to better performance, it's what you do with that time," says Priscilla Little, associate director of the Harvard Family Research Project. She says more time in class won't necessarily produce achievement gains - that depends on how the time is used. And she says it may be a mistake to lose some aspects of traditional afterschool programs, like extra time for the arts and special projects and sports.

Little says she'd like to see more research on Saturday schools, which are more common at boarding schools and charter schools than traditional public schools. But she says the program in West Warwick sounds innovative, and there's no denying that it gets good reviews from students, like fourth grader Ryan Grey, who has big plans for the future.

"I'm going to save the animals from cancer," Ryan says. "Then I'm going to have two more jobs, which I'm going to be like a lawyer and a car designer."

Veterinarian, lawyer or car designer -- it's hard to say which career Gray will eventually pick. But his teachers hope he'll go on to finish high school at the very least. And as the district faces cost cutting measures that include closing an elementary school, their willingness to try new approaches to old problems may be one of their best assets.