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'The Dangerous Hours' 

Mayor Morial's idea to extend school hours receives support from experts in juvenile crime -- including those working in Canal Street stores.

Lydia Willie can set her watch by the teenage shoplifters. "They come in right after school, around 3:30," says the sales associate at the downtown Parade of Shoes. "Everybody comes to Canal."

Because Canal Street is a hub for the city's buses, Willie sees lots of girls who hop on the bus after school and head downtown. The sidewalk in front of Parade, on Canal between Carondolet Street and St. Charles Avenue, is a gathering spot. And so are the stores up and down the street.

Which means that there are days when Willie and her co-workers have to stay on their toes. "If they have something going on -- like a football game or prom -- girls come in like crazy," she says. The store checks bags and booksacks, but Willie says that she does not let groups of girls out of her sight. "We can tell by their faces what they're up to, and we stay right with them," she says.

Mayor Marc Morial recently proposed lengthening the school day to 5 p.m. so that kids would have more time to learn. But the idea makes sense to Lydia Willie from two other perspectives. As a working mother with two girls, she says, she wishes school hours would jibe more with her working hours. And she thinks the longer school day would cut down on the shoplifting she sees at the store. "The high school girls would stay out of trouble more," she says.

Research collected by the FBI and analyzed by the National Center for Juvenile Justice shows that, currently, teenagers are keeping busy after school, but not in ways that most parents would approve of. On school days, between the so-called "dangerous hours" of 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., unsupervised adolescents are more likely to smoke, drink, use drugs and have sex.

They're also most likely to get into trouble. During the four hours after school, juveniles are most likely to commit -- or be victim of -- a violent crime. The most likely hour for a kid to commit sexual assault is between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on a school day. Robberies committed by teens are a little different -- they have two peaks, one right after school and then another one between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Of course, not every adolescent is acting up after school. According to one study, most teens first fix a snack when they come home, and then an estimated three-fourths of them use their free time to slouch in front of the tube -- where they spend an average of 1,500 hours each year, as compared to the 900 hours they spent in school.

All of these statistics paint a pretty grim picture. Which is why longer mandatory school hours have been proposed all across the country. They've been implemented by some private or nonprofit charter schools. If Morial has his way, Orleans Parish would be the first urban area to try longer hours across the school district.

Successful schools with longer days seem to emphasize that the "after school hours" be visibly different from the rest of the school day. Some schools pair up with local arts groups or universities, who help to lead kids in science and art projects and other "non-book" activities. Other programs often put a focus on kids finishing their assignments.

For working parents, longer school days may be coming at a perfect time. A report released this month by the Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research center Child Trends showed that after welfare moms went to work, their teenage kids were more likely to be suspended from school, get lower grades, and engage in delinquent behavior.

Yet the hurdles to implementing the plan throughout Orleans Parish seem almost insurmountable. Mayor Morial would either have to find external funding, or have to raise more money within an already underfunded school system. And he would have to find many more qualified teachers during an already severe teacher shortage. As a result, he might end up trying a less ambitious alternative, like several pilot schools that, if successful, could then pave the way for parish-wide implementation.

Of course, some students might point out there is another alternative -- scrap the concept altogether. Which is what a couple of eighth-graders found tap-dancing on the sidewalk across from Café du Monde would prefer.

Cousins Jonathan Powell and Cortaz Tolk both started eighth grade last week. They can see why Mayor Morial is proposing a longer school day. "I understand why he wants it," says Powell as he balances a spinning bicycle tire on his head, "but man, we can't do all that learning. We wouldn't have any time to make money. Or watch Pokemon or anything. I don't like it at all."

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