By Jennifer Wohlleb
On the surface, the math may seem a little odd for Ballard Memorial High School’s switch this year from a block schedule to a more traditional seven-period class day, but it’s adding up to success for its students.
Under the old schedule, students took eight classes a year. Now they will take just seven, but will get about 52 more class periods in each subject annually and get daily face time with their teachers instead of seeing them every other day.
“We looked at the numbers and I go back to the No. 1 thing that impacts students and their learning, and that is the teacher,” said Principal David Meinschein. “If I have great teachers – and I do – then giving them the maximum amount of time for instruction that I can is going to impact student achievement.”
Most of the extra time comes from eliminating the daily intervention period that had been built into the old class schedule. And instead of 75-minute classes every other day, students now have 51-minute periods five days a week.
“What we’re finding is, when we have them in the classroom every day, we can address what we’re finding,” Meinschein said. “Our assessment cycles are short cycles and there are more of them this year. So with that short-cycle assessment occurring, we’re able to provide the intervention. I think that’s the key part, that intervention is still happening. And it might not even be intervention; it’s just supporting them in the classroom. It’s quickly finding out where they’re having issues, addressing the issues and then moving back in with the teaching cycle.”
No statistics are available on school schedules, but Robert Farrace with the National Association of Secondary School Principals said the pendulum does seems to be settling back in the middle after years of swinging toward block schedules.
“Certainly what hasn’t ebbed at all is this notion of taking a good hard look at how we use time during the course of a school day,” he said. “So whether it’s block or … whether it’s a traditional schedule, what really matters is, are you maximizing the school day to ensure that student learning is optimized during the time you have them in the building?”
With only about four months under the new schedule, Meinschein said the early indicators look good. Teachers are about a month ahead in curriculum compared with a year ago. He said this year’s data from assessments like PLAN, EXPLORE and ACT practice tests also show growth compared with this time last year.
But perhaps the best early indicator of success is the mood of students and faculty. Meinschein said an email query he sent to teachers elicited positive comments.
“They’re saying it’s easier to establish relationships with the students, it’s created a better learning environment,” he said. “We had to redo unit plans, pacing guides, but we have effectively covered more of the curriculum. I’m not having complaints of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ll never cover this curriculum.’”
He said teachers led much of this change, including initiating talks that got the ball rolling.
“It started in my math and English departments and that’s interesting because that’s the brunt of the accountability right there,” he said. “When those people ask you for something, as an administrator you’d better listen because you put a lot on English and math. I made them do the research and made them justify why (the change). I didn’t share my thoughts and beliefs at first because I wanted to make sure it was something they wanted to do. Of course, I was on board, I was ready.”
As for students, silence seems to be golden.
“At first the kids weren’t too thrilled about going that way,” said Ballard County school board member Cara Mills, whose son is a junior, “but I haven’t heard any complaints since they started. So evidently it’s going fine.”
It has been a culture change for the school, which Meinschein said had been on a block schedule for at least 10 years.
“Our structure was built around having a block schedule: the intervention period; we had a success lab built in so if students didn’t complete their work they went to success lab during that intervention period; clubs were built into that intervention period in the middle of the day; speakers were built into it, so this is not just an easy change,” he said. “Think about that: you’re not just changing the schedule, you’re changing how you do operations. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. It’s not like you just meet one day and decide to do it.”