Saturday, February 19, 2011

The School Schedule Choke Hold

Over the past 20 years, there seems to have been a never ending conversation about school schedules. Block schedules, traditional schedules, modular schedules, alternating schedules are all examples of the efforts of education reformers to improve the experiences of teachers and students in our classrooms. With the invasion of the 21st Century learning revolution into our educational culture, conversations about school schedules have taken on new and much more interesting tones. With e-learning, virtual schools and the open source learning management software being used by almost all schools, just how limiting are the constraints of any of the traditional modes of scheduling? For many of us who hope to continue to tear down the walls of traditional schooling, traditional schedules can feel like a choke hold on innovation and the creative use of time.

Over this past year, our School Schedule Task Force at Hunterdon Central has been working to explore alternatives to the 4 X 4 Block schedule that my school has been using since 1996. One of the earliest schools in New Jersey to move to a block schedule, it has become clear that with the changing educational landscape as related to 21st Century learning environments as well as standardized testing schedules that are dictated to schools by the State, our current schedule may not be meeting the needs of our students in ways that it once was. The extended learning time afforded by any block schedule is something that we believe is best for our students however the way that we allocate time for learning needs to change if we are going to seriously consider the exciting opportunities that technology and virtual learning may offer for both students, teachers and parents.

Currently we are looking at the following Exploratory Topics:

o     Year Round Schooling/Trimester Plans
o     Staggered Day/Flexible Hours
o     Community College Schedules
o     Virtual Schools/Hybrids
o     Extended Learning Time/Block Schedule Variations/Modular Schedules
o     Academies/Schools within Schools/Freshman Teams

As the need for more flexible time to engage with our students in a true 21st Century Learning environment expands, the way that we use our time – both students and teachers – needs to change. Or at least be considered differently. As we have moved to the use of open source learning management software (Moodle), our teachers and students collaborate with one another in an almost 24/7 environment. The constraints of traditional school schedules are becoming more limiting. Some of the questions that we have asked ourselves include:

  • Do all students and teachers really need to be here at the same time?
  • Do all students necessarily have to start and end school at the same time?
  • Should all teachers and students be exposed to some kinds of virtual/on-line learning opportunities in preparation for college and work?
  • How does that translate into teacher time since it is not a traditional class taught in a traditional way? How does this translate in the old “seat time” paradigm for kids?
  • What about year round schooling and trimester plans? Wouldn’t some kids, parents and teachers simply like this model better? 
  • Does “teaming” make more sense for freshman in a large school district or for students with learning challenges?

Working in teams, our teachers and administrators have been researching schedules in a variety of schools and consistent themes are emerging. We know that we need to find and create time for teachers to meet together in professional learning communities to discuss student work and individual student progress among the teachers working directly with each student. The shift toward educational progress plans for EVERY student mandate that teachers have this collaborative time. Students seek more opportunities to work collaboratively with one another on inquiry based learning projects and to work virtually taking a blend of both on-site and on-line courses. Traditional schedules are not designed to allow for this kind of collaboration which is critical in a 21st Century learning environment.

Although once considered a “taboo subject’” especially at the high school level, why not simply attend school year round as they do in many countries on a trimester type schedule that mimics more of a college experience. An example of a year round schedule seems to really resonate with many members of our committee.

The traditional year round calendar features a long summer vacation of 12 weeks followed by a long period of in-session days, with the first break coming at Thanksgiving. The winter holidays are followed by 55 in-session days before a short spring break. Spring break is followed by 40 work days before the end of the school year. Realistically, most schools in the Northeast are in session until almost the end of June anyway. Many, many students are already back at school by mid-August for band camp and fall athletics as well. On the year round calendar, everyone is off during the month of July which is pretty much when we are off on a traditional calendar. Year round schooling allows for both remedial and enrichment opportunities and has a strong research base that points to the importance of the “loss of lag time” for learners who are struggling. For those who have fewer learning challenges, they can choose to expand their learning through enrichment programs during time off, virtual course work or simply just take a break.

Putting aside issues regarding transportation (which are very real constraints), why do all kids have to be in school at the same time? Why do all the teachers have to be there at the same time? Maybe there are kids who would rather start at 10:30 and be finished at 5:30. Maybe there are teachers who would rather do this too. Especially if I am not involved in athletics, a later school day may make sense. There are myriad interesting issues and options to explore.

We are excited that our next steps involve students into our conversations in a meaningful way so that we can begin to fold their input and ideas into the dialogue. Knowing that “one size does not fit all,” I am looking forward to some challenging and lively discourse as we expand our conversations. Involving parents and community is the next phase of our plans and I welcome your thoughts, comments and concerns.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dr. Brady,
    I think you should keep the school year the same as it is. One reason is that everyone is used to it and a change will get confusing not only for the students but the teachers too. Also, people plan stuff in the summer like June to August. Another reason, for students the regular two in half months of summer is just like a relaxing time off and they could be them selves and concentrate on something besides school and education. These are only a few reasons why you should keep the regular scheduling.
    Our school starts at 7:30, to me that’s a little to early because kids don’t perform as well as they could be doing when they’re tired. Even though, the time is early we get out at 2:00 and we have the rest of the day for our selves. I personally like that, but some athletes may have important games after school and may have to stay after for a longer period of time. Since they have to wake up so early they may not perform their best during their action. That is the only bad thing about having school start so early, other than that I personally like the early scheduling.
    Matt Wougk