The Frederick County Board of Education will consider making a major change on Wednesday, when its seven members will vote on whether to rework the existing middle school schedule, replacing 90-minute-long classes with seven 47-minute class periods.
At a work session on Thursday, board members voiced their concerns, asked questions and requested additional information about the proposed change, which would affect all 13 middle schools in the county.
If the board approves the proposed schedule change, it would go into effect at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.
Among other issues, board members questioned how the proposed change would affect staffing at individual schools and whether it would force teachers to hold classes outside their areas of expertise.
Although school officials defended the proposal and said they had thoroughly researched it, the majority of the board members also expressed concerns that the change is being rushed, and there has not been enough time to gather response from teachers and parents.
“I am very uncomfortable with the very short time frame, “ school board member Kathryn “Katie” Groth said.
A school system committee has been working for months to develop the proposed schedule change, but the final proposal was only first presented to the board in November.
School officials asked board members to accept the change by January, so that it can go in place for the coming school year. The idea is to have the new schedule in time for 2013-14, the first year in which schools will take new state assessment tests without being held accountable for the results.
While school board members said they understand that pressure, they also expressed concern that the system simply did not give adequate time to teachers and parents to digest the change.
“This is something that will have a lot of impact on everyone,” school board member April Miller said. “It’s not just a change. It’s a major change.”
As soon as she heard about the proposed change, Miller said she went to Middletown Middle School, where she met with teachers to discuss the change. None of the 10 teachers she met knew about the ongoing work on the proposed schedule change, and many of them had questions and concerns, she said.
“If this is going to be successful, teachers will have to be on board with it,” Miller said.
One big concern for teachers was whether the new schedule would reduce the need for teachers in math and language arts, while increasing the need for those who teach science and social studies, Miller said.
Another question was whether the change would force highly qualified math and language arts teachers to teach outside of their areas of expertise by having to take on classes in science and social studies.
Although many county teachers hold certifications in multiple subject areas, some of them may not have practiced their areas of expertise for years, Miller said.
Under the proposed schedule, county middle schoolers will be able to take shorter classes in all core subjects, including English language arts, math, social studies and science every day.
The new schedule would increase the time that students spend on social studies and science, but it may also reduce the time that they have now in math and English language arts.
Students now take either math or science each semester, and the new schedule would make it possible for them to take both subjects every day throughout the year.
Teachers questioned if the school system has enough qualified educators to support that change and whether math and language arts teachers could lose their jobs if school officials have to hire more science and social studies teachers, Miller said.
But school administrators believe that impact will be minimal if the schedule change is adopted.
Thomas Saunders, instructional director for middle schools, said when the proposal was developed, educators did not foresee any major differences in staffing.
“I see it as balancing of instructional time, not a loss,” Saunders told the board.
In limited cases, the school system may have to “excess” teachers, or send them to a school where they have not taught before, school officials said.
And, although there may be cases where teachers would teach outside their major area of expertise, those will be the exceptions, Saunders said.
“For the most part, it will be two or three teachers,” he said.
But educators will not know how the scenario would play out at every middle school until they finalize enrollments and determine the number of teachers who are leaving or retiring.
Some middle school principals who served on the committee also told board members on Thursday that they had discussed the schedule with teachers as they developed the proposal.
Middle school reform
County Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban told the board that when the panel of principals, instructional assistants and other school staff members started working on the schedule change it was already addressing concerns about the current school schedule.
Frederick County Public Schools have been looking for a way to reform middle schools since 2006, when the school system put together a task force of 125 teachers, administrators, parents, community leaders and school principals to complete a comprehensive review of all aspects of middle school operations.
But when the task force finally made its recommendations, the school system was facing a tight financial squeeze and could only implement recommendations that required no funding.
In 2008, the system carved out time for enrichment each day and put all of its middle schools on a uniform two-day rotating schedule of 90-minute periods, allowing all students to have at least 45 minutes of math and language arts instruction each day.
The proposed schedule change now builds upon the recommendations of the middle school task force, Alban told the board.
Developed about a decade ago, the current 90-minute schedule gives students additional time to prepare in math and reading — the subjects that are tested on the Maryland School Assessments.
But it is not tailored to new high demands of the Common Core State Standards, an initiative adopted by 48 states that 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.
The county is currently in the second phase of its transition, which will be completed in 2013-14.
In preparation for that change, Alban in September charged a committee of school principals and curriculum leaders to find a schedule alternative that better fits the school system’s changing needs.
Alban urged the school board to accept the committee’s recommended schedule this year, so that educators have time to try it and make changes without having to worry about the new state assessments.
She also stressed that the board will have to make a decision in January, so that the cost of the change can be factored into the school system’s budget.
So far, school officials estimate that the change in schedule will cost about $283,000 to implement, which includes money for additional teachers, materials in social studies and science, outfitting science classrooms and professional development for teachers.
But that figure is just an estimate, and officials will know in January how many new staff members they will need to execute the change, Alban said.
If the board approves the schedule next month, the school system will have until the end of the school year to work out all the details, familiarize the community with the change, talk to teachers and prepare to train them for teaching in shorter time periods, Alban said.
“I would almost say look at it for a year and then evaluate it again,” she told the board.