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How much teacher time is enough? Board grapples with schedule change (05/22/2013)
By Sarah Squires

Winona Senior High School students will soon attend classes under a new school schedule, and the School Board is expected to choose at its next meeting which schedule system will be used.

A committee composed of teachers has recommended a five-period, "hybrid" schedule. It is an uncommon schedule, one used only at Forest Lake High School, and provides for three 50-minute "skinny" classes and two 90-minute "block" periods per day. Teachers currently spend 260 minutes per day teaching, but under the hybrid five-period schedule, they would teach 240 minutes for one-half of the year and 280 minutes during the other half.

The schedule change was requested to help address several issues with the current trimester schedule. The current system does not allow students to "accelerate" in classes like math and language, since they cannot take two of either subject in the same year. For this reason, most students have not completed a relevant math class prior to taking the graduation math test in their junior year. Additionally, problems with the sequencing of core classes, such as math, have been identified under the current system, with students sometimes experiencing year-long gaps between math and other core classes. WAPS students also have the least amount of teacher contact time in the Big 9.

In the past, adding time to the secondary school day has been problematic due to some people being unwilling to extend the day beyond the current 3:30 p.m. release time. Starting high school earlier than 9 a.m., under the current, two-tier bus schedule, would mean that elementary-aged students would have to get on buses earlier than they do now — when the current earliest pick-up time for elementary students is 6:25 a.m. Changing the bus schedule in a way that would require more driver time would also increase the bus contract price.

The board discussed the hybrid five-period schedule, along with several other schedule options, during its last meeting. Also studied were a seven-period, two-semester system, and a six-period, two-semester system. The majority of Big 9 school districts use the seven-period, two-semester schedule.

In response to an expressed desire among board members for more student contact time for teachers, Winona Senior High School Principal Kelly Halvorsen told the board that in order to reach the goal of 300 minutes daily, the board would have to add 30 minutes to the school day. That would provide for 300 minutes of teaching time and 50 minutes of prep time.

Board member Jay Kohner said he believed the possibility of extending the high school day to 4 p.m. should be more thoroughly evaluated. "We really need to know exactly why that's not a good thing to do for our students," he said. "That's why we're doing all this — hopefully — for our students."

Human Resources Director Pat Blaisdell said she believed state law requires school districts to provide prep time for teachers during the student day, not before or after. Minnesota Statute 122A.50 does require prep time during the student school day, but provides for exceptions when a teachers' union and district are able to agree on another arrangement.

Kohner said he wondered if there was a way for the district to negotiate a prep period for teachers before the student day begins, such as a prep period from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m.

Board member Brian Zeller asked whether the district could add 15 minutes to the secondary school day, simply start five minutes earlier and end 10 minutes later. Halvorsen told the board that if it chose the seven-period day and added 15 minutes, it would only increase class times by two minutes.

"It's really the quality of time," said superintendent Scott Hannon. "It doesn't make any difference whether you [have] 250, 260 or 270 [minutes in the school day]." Hannon explained he was confident that the five-period hybrid schedule was chosen because it was the best fit for the needs of the students.

Some board members expressed concern that, under the five-period hybrid schedule, teachers would have a 90-minute prep period for half of the year. Halvorsen told the board that teachers would have specific assignments during 40 minutes of the 90-minute prep time, assignments that had them working with students. A teacher could assist in another classroom, or do small group remediation, she said.

Board member Ben Baratto said he was concerned that there would not be enough for those teachers to do during the lengthy prep period. "There's probably only so many things that you can plug them into that would be meaningful time for them," he said.

Board member Jeanne Nelson said she wanted to ensure that the work done by teachers during the larger prep period was fully planned during Professional Learning Community (PLC) group meetings — committees composed of teachers who work together to improve curriculum and student achievement. Nelson said that remediation help could be targeted and well-thought-out with the use of the PLC teams.

Several board members expressed interest in the six-period, two-semester system. Nelson said that schedule would include 275 minutes of teacher contact time and would allow for longer "block" periods.

Halvorsen said that the six-period schedule, like the current trimester schedule, would not allow students to "double-up" in longer core classes such as math and language. Additionally, "Our elective departments would suffer." Halvorsen explained that the six-period schedule would not allow for as many elective classes. A student who is in band, for example, would not be able to begin Spanish in ninth grade because he would need to also take physical education, she said. Those electives can be important to some students, she continued, who are only interested in attending school because of their favorite elective course. "I think that's one thing that's great about Winona: we can offer families those choices in education."

The draw-back for the seven-period day, said Halvorsen, is that each class period would be 46 minutes long, deemed too short by teachers. It works for other districts, she said, because they have longer school days, varying from 30 minutes longer some places, to Rochester, which has a school day that is more than an hour longer than WAPS.

The high school schedule item was originally on the board agenda for a final vote, but the board opted to delay a vote until after it had a chance to review the options. Board member Steve Schild said he supported the hybrid five-period schedule recommended by teachers and felt it addressed the problems identified in the current schedule. He attempted to make a motion to vote on the schedule that evening, but the motion died after no other board member would second it.

Several board members said they would like to wait to hear from members of the public about their thoughts on the options before casting a vote on the new schedule.  


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