Class times could be shortened and middle school students may have to tackle more core subjects every day in the next school year under a proposal being considered by the Frederick County Board of Education.
The proposal, to be presented to the school board on Wednesday, calls for the elimination of the 90-minute block schedule currently in place in the county’s 13 middle schools. Instead, classes would run for 47 minutes each.
Currently, Frederick County middle schoolers take five 90-minute classes each day and have time for extended learning. Under the proposed schedule, students will take seven classes of 47 minutes each, plus a 30-minute period dedicated to extended learning.
The proposed change is a product of months of work by a committee of middle school principals and curriculum specialists. While the school board will ultimately decide whether to approve the proposal, the seven board members are not expected to make a decision this week, Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban said.
“We are hoping the Board will endorse the schedule change, but they do not need to act on it at this time,” Alban wrote in an email to The Gazette. “We will then address the budgetary changes as we prepare the budget.”
Although school officialas have been involved in the initiative for months, it is the first time that educators are presenting the effort to the public. And at least one parent advocate has criticized the system for not doing a better job of informing the public about the effort.
“This is a major change,” said Janice Spiegel, a former president of the PTA Council of Frederick County and an active school board observer. “But it came out of nowhere.”
The school system last year discussed high school schedules, and parents offered their opinions at a forum held by the PTA Council of Frederick County. Middle school changes were not addressed, Spiegel said.
She now hopes the board will give parents time to understand the proposal, weigh in on its benefits and challenges, and provide feedback before the board makes its final decision.
“When changes like this happen, parents are going to have to be given the opportunity to participate,” she said.
Unlike the current five-block schedule which carves out the most time for math and English and allows students to take either social studies or science every semester, the new model would not be semester-based, according to Thomas Saunders, instructional director for middle schools. Under the new schedule, students will take both social studies and science throughout the entire year, he said.
Consisting of seven class periods, the new schedule would ensure students have daily classes in more core subjects, including English language arts, math, science and social studies, Saunders said.
“This is going to be every subject every day,” he said.
The proposed schedule will cost $283,000 to implement and the school board will have to decide how to fund the initiative.
If the board decides to implement the change, the school system will need to add at least 2.3 additional teacher positions — totaling $109,000 — and purchase additional materials in math and science, which could cost about $40,000.
Additional funds will go to professional development and workshops preparing teachers to make the most of their class time, according to a staff presentation, which has been posted on the school system’s website.
According to Saunders, the proposal will allow schools to prepare students for the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessment tests, which are expected to replace the existing Maryland School Assessments in the 2014-15 school year. The proposed change in schedule will only affect middle schools in the county.
Developed to prepare students for the Maryland School Assessments, Frederick County’s current five-block schedule was designed to provide students with additional time in math and reading — two of the three content areas the MSAs evaluate.
However, the new PARCC assessments will test students’ proficiency in five content areas, including English language arts, math, social studies, science and STEM, or science, math, engineering and technology. So educators will need a class schedule that can support that new performance expectation, Saunders said.
“It is important to align our schedule to these current expectations,” he said. “It makes sense to go away from the block schedule.... Montgomery County, Howard County, they are doing the same thing.”
The new tests are part of the ongoing transition into the Common Core State Standards, an initiative adopted by 48 states which aims to ensure that students nationwide meet the same rigorous educational objectives.
In 2010, Maryland became one of the first states to adopt the common core, and educators statewide have been working since then to develop a curriculum based on the standards.
Frederick County is currently in the second phase of its transition, and officials expect to complete implementation of the new curriculum in 2013-14.
In anticipation of that change, Alban has been asking teachers for feedback on the current middle school schedule. In September, a committee of school principals and curriculum leaders also started looking at potential middle school schedule alternatives.
One of the biggest benefits of the proposed schedule is that students will not have to go a semester without learning an important subject such as social studies or science, Saunders said.
But the seven-period schedule would also give more flexibility for grouping students based on performance, including time for extended learning and remediation, and give teachers time to analyze student performance data, Saunders said.
In addition to having classes in four core areas every day, students will get a 47-minute period for daily physical education, daily electives and exploratory studies, such as consumer science and college preparation.
The new schedule will also eliminate the need for the current A and B day format, which requires students to take physical education and visual arts every other day.
But there will be challenges, too, Saunders said.
While the new schedule will increase instructional time for science and social studies from a maximum of 7,650 minutes per school year to 8,554 minutes, it will also reduce the time that students spend on math and language arts. The new schedule could also reduce instructional time in subjects like art, where teachers need time to set up and prepare for activities.
According to Spiegel, both of those changes have the potential to stir up parent reactions.
“There are parents who will be very vocal about this,” she said. “You are going to have parents who will have a problem with losing instructional time in math and language arts.”
Spiegel, who has a son at Middletown High School and a daughter who recently graduated from a Frederick County school, was also concerned that the smaller periods in the schedule change proposal could lead to more class changes and lost instructional time.
Middle school students, as a result, will spend more time in school hallways, which are a prime location for fights and bullying, Spiegel said.
“That is where problems happen,” she said.
But Saunders said the school system can work out a way to solve these issues.
“There is no perfect schedule,” he said. “It is going to be new thinking about how to do this. But it makes sense to go away from the block schedule.”