MONROE — Although no action was taken or even planned, the Walton County Board of Education took time Thursday to discuss the ramifications of any possible switch from block scheduling.
The board gathered for its monthly work session and brought the principals of all three high schools in the Walton County School District for a sprawling conversation on the advantages and disadvantages of both the block schedule and the conventional six-period day, as well as any hidden pitfalls that might come should the system ever switch.
“The goal is to have an open discussion,” Nathan Franklin, WCSD superintendent, said. “We’ve held this exercise before, three or four times in the last decade. We want to look at our options and see if we’re best staying with what we have.”
The school district has used the block schedule — in which students take eight courses over the course of a year, with four 90-minute classes each semester — for more than two decades but periodically has considered returning to a standard six- or seven-period day, a schedule in which students take that many courses across the whole year.
“There are a set of advantages and a set of disadvantages both with block scheduling and with a six- or seven-period schedule,” Celeste Cannon, director of curriculum, said. “Each has its strengths and weaknesses.”
While the block schedule allows students to take more courses over the entire year, allowing more room for electives, technical courses and fine arts offerings, it can be harder on students who find themselves falling behind.
Bryan Hicks, principal at Monroe Area High School, said this can present a problem at times.
“If a ninth grader fails a class, well they can re-take it the next semester,” Hicks said. “But if they fail two classes, and already have some catch-up to handle before that, they have no room for additional remediation. As sophomores, they’ll be taking two maths or two English courses to try and keep up, and they’ll have no room for elective courses that can keep them engaged and enjoying high school.”
Board member Jeremy Kilburn also had issue with the longer class periods on block schedule, which are 90 minutes, compared to the 50-minute class time on a conventional schedule.
“You’ll never convince me you get as much quality instruction time on block schedule,” Kilburn said. “We expect our teachers to hold kids’ attention for 90 minutes? Some of them are probably tuning out well before that.”
On the block schedule, however, students have fewer courses per semester, allowing for more focused attention on specific courses, as well as lighter homework burden.
Chairman David Breedlove said that last especially struck his kids when the topic came up at home.
“First thing my kids said was, ‘Oh no, more homework,’” Breedlove said.
Franklin said parents, when polled on the two options, usually had little preference overall, focusing on more specific scheduling issues.
“There are several concerns parents bring up every time this is discussed,” Franklin said. “You can laugh if you’d like, but this is what parents are concerned about. They are, don’t start school on a Monday, don’t start school in July, don’t change fall break, be done by Memorial Day and most of all, we wish they were done three days before Christmas.”
And while some of those concerns are better addressed by one or the other schedule, Franklin said the most important issue might be whether a change might affect their current statistical performance.
“One of the concerns is, will we be risking our success in graduation rate?” Franklin said. “We’ve had block for 20 years and we’ve built everything around it.”
Board member Coleman Landers agreed.
“Graduation rate is going to control quite a bit,” Landers said. “You don’t want to see that go down.”
In the end, the board made no plans for any action, judging there was little benefit to a change that would not also bring drawbacks.
“Is there some sort of shiny, sparkly thing I’m missing here?” Breedlove said. “I’m not seeing that thing that if you switched, this is what you’re going to get.”
Walnut Grove High School principal Sean Callahan said the change has no clear winner or loser.
“It affects opportunities, both for struggling kids and the top students,” Callahan said.
“The overall data is a wash,” Franklin said. “It shows no significant difference between schedules. But just having this exercise is good. We know what we’re doing well and what we’re missing.”