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Speakers urge flexibility in scheduling high school day

Many students stood to defend the four period day, including seniors Allison Norris, left, and Gena Felton. - Jim Larsen
Many students stood to defend the four period day, including seniors Allison Norris, left, and Gena Felton.
— image credit: Jim Larsen

South Whidbey residents spent 120 minutes talking about 90-minute classes on Monday.

The subject matter was the high school’s day of four, 90-minute periods. At the semester, students take four different classes, giving them eight for the year. This contrasts to the traditional schedule of six 50-minute classes taught all year long.

South Whidbey’s “block schedule,” as it is called, results in more class offerings, but about 18 percent less total time spent in each class. Block schedule supporters say less “passing time” between classes makes up for some of that lost time. With 90-minute classes, teaching can be more intensive and effective, they say.

The school board commissioned a review of the 10-year-old system, and held a public forum Monday at the high school to collect comments.

Jim Adsley, school board president, after listening to two hours of opinions from teachers, students and community members, tried to lay to rest the view that the school board is out to end the present schedule.

“Some students think we’re going back to six periods,” Adsley told the crowd of some 150 people. “I want to alleviate those fears.” He said the school board is still studying the issue and no decision has been made. “There’s no predetermination about what we need to do,” he said.

Two long-time community leaders, John Carty and Jim Lindus, made separate statements that may have implied concern that the board is dabbling in areas better left to the administration.

“The board is for governing,” said Carty, who spent several years as school board chairman in the ‘80s. Nodding toward Martin Laster, superintendent of schools, he said, “Give him the ability to go in and make the adjustments.”

Lindus, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, scanned the large audience and said his first impulse was to ask for an offering. Getting serious, he commended the school board for its effort to “identify the issues” surrounding the four-period day. But after that, he said, ‘you should trust the professionals.”

The board has contracted with Northwest Region Educational Laboratory to study the four-period day through various surveys and analyses. The study is due to be finished this fall. Any scheduling changes that result are planned to be implemented next school year.

Part of the impetus for the study was a request from the State Board of Education asking for more information about the effectiveness of the block schedule. The board annually grants a credit waiver to the school district because fewer than the required 150 hours are spent in each class. However, in recent years the state has encouraged school districts to try different programs.

Although several dozen people spoke, no one proposed throwing out the four period day and replacing it with the traditional schedule. The word most often used was “flexibility.” Parents wanted a more flexible schedule, with more choices for their children, and less trouble getting the classes they want when they need them.

Cheryn Weiser said her two children have different learning styles, but the four period day provided each with the education they needed. The four period day, she said, offers “flexibility across learning styles.” But she joined others in saying more flexibility is needed in the schedule. “You can fine tune something that’s on a firm foundation,” she said.

Many of the parents expressed frustration with scheduling classes, and students having to wait up to a year to take a class they want. Some students who take Algebra 1 the first semester as a freshman, for example, can’t take Algebra 2 until the second semester the following year. There was consensus in the audience that math sequencing needs improvement.

Dr. Patrice O’Neill, a habitual attender of school board meetings, put down her needlework, stood up and gave one of her more impassioned speeches. “An hour and a half with a really bad teacher is a really bad day,” she said, calling as many did for improved teacher training so they know how to use a 90 minute period. She said she had to pay for a math tutor for one of her children. “Others can’t afford that,” she said. She also complained that many students “can’t spell, and nobody’s going to correct it.” She also noted South Whidbey’s 25 percent dropout rate, which is similar to Seattle’s.

But O’Neill too fixed on the need for flexibility with, for example, year-long math and foreign language classes mixed with the 90-minute semester offerings.

Veteran teachers, including Mike McInerney, Tom Kramer and Steve Clarke, spoke positively of the four period day compared to the six period schedule they spent years teaching before the change.

“Teaching is not about time, it’s about teaching,” Clarke said.

McInerney described his busy 90-minutes classes. “What would you have me eliminate?” he asked.

“It’s a better format,” Kramer said. But he said some modifications to the schedule would be fine. “Nothing’s perfect.”

Students, both present and former, were united in their support of the four period day, despite some hassles they’ve experienced with scheduling. Colin Murphy, Katy Riggs, Finn Keough, Gina Felton, Patrick Boyle, Kelsey Broderick, Charlie Patnoe, Chris Hanh and many others spoke positively of their schedule. A main benefit all mentioned is the time teachers have with students.

“Every class I go to I know my teachers very well,” Hahn said. “If you get behind in class, after the lesson they’ll come and help you.”

Kelsey Broderick, a freshman, said, “You get to take in what the teacher says. You can ask question, and understand it more.”

Another student, Sarah Magdalik, said, “I can’t learn from a book. I have to learn from a teacher.” The longer classes give her the time she needs to talk to teachers. “Are my parents going to teach me calculus?” she asked.

Olga Chambers, grandmother of a students, applauded the students’ public presentations. “The school must be doing something right,” she said. But she complained that students can’t always get the classes they want, which she attributed to “a lack of flexibility.”

Several speakers said top students do well in any schedule, and poorer students who ask usually get the help they need. Those in the middle can get into trouble.

“Look at the kids falling through the cracks, there are probably more of those than you realize,” said parent Reva Albright. “When the system fails they don’t speak up.”

All the comments were recorded and will become part of the four-period day study.

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