Winona Senior High School (WSHS) teachers were surveyed to determine which new high school schedule they preferred. Given several options, two of which included an extended school day, teachers chose a hybrid five-period schedule that would allow educators to have a 90-minute prep period for half of the school year.
School leaders have desired a schedule change to address several problems. The current trimester schedule does not allow students to take more than one math course per year, resulting in a situation in which juniors have not taken a relevant statistics course before taking the graduation math test. Students are also unable to accelerate their studies in areas such as language; currently they are able to take only one language class per year.
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) students also receive the fewest hours of instructional time in the Big 9 conference — currently about 260 minutes per day at WSHS. School begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m., and district officials have said the current bus contract makes it difficult to change.
The recommended schedule
About 70 percent of WSHS teachers surveyed preferred the five period hybrid schedule, principal Kelly Halvorsen explained to the board earlier this month. It is an uncommon schedule in the state of Minnesota, used only by Forest Lake High School. It provides for three "skinny" courses at 50 minutes each and two "block" periods at 90 minutes.
Halvorsen said there is no "one perfect schedule," adding that this was why high school schedules varied across the state. "It's a reflection of the needs of the community and the needs of the school," she explained.
Acting as a "listening ear and liaison," Halvorsen sat in on the schedule committee sessions — discussions among teachers from all departments held biweekly, then later weekly, since the fall of 2012. Since local school districts set the minimum number of hours in a class needed for a credit, Halvorsen said the group decided no fewer than 60 hours per credit was the goal. They also wanted to ensure that each class period was no less than 50 minutes, since it can be difficult to provide meaningful instruction in less time.
Committee members also evaluated how many elective choices students would have under a variety of schedule options. "[We] thought maintaining some student choice in their schedule was very important," said Halvorsen.
The committee determined that a seven-period, two-semester schedule was worth looking at, along with the hybrid five-period day, and Halvorsen said it also explored those two options with an extended school day. The options were taken to teachers for a vote, with 70 percent of respondents selecting the five-period hybrid schedule — with no extension of the day — as either their first or second choice.
Halvorsen explained that the five-period hybrid model would provide for the "skinny" 50-minute classes, which could help some students who struggle with core classes. Those students who might have trouble absorbing a class such as math with just one semester of 90-minute classes could take the math class in a skinny period for the entire year. That would reduce "gaps" for core subjects — when a student does not take a core class for a semester and then must pick it up again the following year in the next sequenced core course — which can also present a hardship for students who have difficulty retaining knowledge over time.
The options that included an extended school day were less popular among teachers surveyed. Halvorsen explained that the options were evaluated based on the assumption that the district could somehow add 30 minutes to the school day. "Those [options] are not in this [recommendation] because they finished worse than the other options," said Halvorsen of the teacher survey. "There was conversation that extending the day isn't going to be good for kids at this point. If we go past 3:30 [p.m.], that's way too late in the day for high school students."
The current teachers' contract includes a limit of 300 minutes allowed per day for teaching time; the teachers spend approximately 260 minutes each day teaching. The board's goal, said board member Jeanne Nelson, was to get that up to 300 minutes. However, under the hybrid five-period day schedule, teachers would spend 240 minutes teaching one semester, then 280 minutes the next. Halvorsen said that the division could cause some conflict among teachers for "unequal prep time."
Some of the schedule options discussed by the committee would not work unless teacher contracts were adjusted to allow for more instructional time, Halvorsen added. A seven-period schedule with 30 minutes added to the day would allow teachers to provide instruction for only six of the seven periods without a contract adjustment.
Board member Jay Kohner asked if it were possible to start school at WSHS earlier than 9 a.m. Halvorsen said it was up to the board, adding that it was not one of teachers' top choices, and it would "increase teacher contact time."
Board chair Mohamed Elhindi noted that adding time at the end of the day did not seem to be a popular choice. "It just doesn't seem productive," replied Halvorsen.
Nelson said it was important for the public to know that the district has constraints to extending the school day, including the cost of amending the bus contract. "We do have a very short school day, one of the shortest in the state of Minnesota," she said. "Does that affect our achievement? I would believe that it does." We have to work within the reality of those constraints, she added.
Board members briefly discussed a potential "zero hour" that could be held before school officially starts, which would allow students who could provide their own transportation to take an additional class before school if they choose.
"It bothers me a bit that only one school in Minnesota has this [hybrid five-period schedule]," said board member Ben Baratto.
Halvorsen explained that the hybrid model was difficult to schedule, and that fewer students could have schedules set through computer modeling under that system. A higher percentage of student schedules would have to be done by hand, she said, but added she felt her staff could handle the work.
Board members expressed hesitancy in allowing teachers to spend 90 minutes outside of the classroom under the five-period hybrid schedule, and Halvorsen explained they could devote some of the prep time to supervising lunch or overseeing the study room or remediation sessions with students.
Board member Brian Zeller suggested that perhaps teachers with a 90-minute prep could spend a portion of the time in another teacher's classroom, either "team teaching," or helping a group of students who might need more individual attention in a certain area.
Halvorsen said finding instructional duties for those teachers during those long prep times would be a priority, but admitted that not every teacher would be involved in those activities. When asked why, she said that some teachers had "different skill sets."
"Can you come back with a list or something of good, productive ways that teachers can take that 60 minutes of unused contact time and find creative [ways] we can use it to support our students?" requested Nelson.
Superintendent Scott Hannon said that students will be spending less and less time in the classroom as technology and internet learning opportunities expand in the future. Maybe, he suggested, teachers could use the extra prep time to study the use of technology and online learning to prepare for things to come.
Halvorsen is also expected to bring back information on a six-period, two-semester schedule that would provide for 275 minutes of teacher-student contact time per day. Halvorsen said it would reduce the number of elective choices available to students, but the board expressed interest in learning more about the option.
"There's no possible way to please everybody," said Halvorsen. "We thought [the hybrid five-period schedule] provided the best opportunities to meet our priorities."