High School Scheduling that Works

The decision to adopt a particular high school schedule is certain to generate significant community discussion. Opinions vary about the most effective or most fiscally responsible format. Given the importance and visibility of high schools in most communities, it stands to reason that any proposed change should be subjected to scrutiny. The following post recounts one district’s journey to evaluate the effectiveness of a secondary schedule format.

In my role as director of secondary education in the St. Joseph School District, I have been charged to complete a review of block scheduling that includes data related to student outcomes and the financial efficiency of the format. Research for this study was conducted over an 18 month period beginning in July 2016.

Transformation
The reimagining of the high school experience was a national trend in 1995 when St. Joseph’s board of education endorsed the implementation of a 7 period block schedule. At the time, many districts across the country had converted from traditional 7 or 8 period schedules in favor of a rotating or flexible block schedule, which was championed at the time by leading voices such as Canady and Rettig (1995). A modification to the 7 period block would occur nearly a decade after implementation. In 2004, the board of education approved the addition of one period to the high school schedule, thus creating the current 4×4 block schedule.

Challenges Emerge
Despite the addition of one instructional period, graduation credit requirements did not increase substantially. Therefore, students were required to only earn 78% of all possible credits, 25 of 32 possible. Students quickly realized they could pick and choose when to attend school, fail multiple courses without consequence, and still manage to graduate on time. Instead of selecting challenging coursework all four years, many students opted to stack their schedule with less rigorous coursework their senior year and enjoy what they referred to as off-days.

Despite the potential for improving achievement and increasing graduation rates, what the 4×4 block schedule seemingly developed was a system that became tolerant of low achievement and dramatically low levels of attendance (see figure 1). For example, over a 9-year span from 2008 to 2017, attendance in St. Joseph ranked in the bottom 5.4% of all Missouri high schools (DESE, 2017). Equally concerning, over 10% of high school graduates in 2017 earned a diploma with a cumulative GPA of 1.99 or below.

Figure 1 – High School Proportional Attendance in St. Joseph
Benton HS Central HS Lafayette HS *MO Ranking
2008-09 71.6% 76.0% 72.0% 9.3%
2009-10 68.8% 73.2% 60.6% 6.5%
2010-11 67.1% 73.5% 64.0% 4.8%
2011-12 66.1% 75.0% 63.8% 4.1%
2012-13 66.5% 74.8% 63.5% 3.4%
2013-14 69.8% 77.4% 67.3% 3.9%
2014-15 69.3% 77.7% 69.4% 4.6%
2015-16 66.7% 81.3% 69.3% 5.3%
2016-17 68.2% 82.1% 69.3% 6.6%

*Percent of Missouri high schools with lower proportional attendance rates than St. Joseph

Financial Concern Grows
Aside from concerns related to student outcomes, the financial cost of implementing the block schedule has been a topic of school board discussion for several years. In the spring of 2010, the St. Joseph School District’s Curriculum Department conducted focus groups with students, parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators to examine the pros and cons of traditional schedules and block schedules. The recommendation of the department at that time was to maintain the block schedule, but for each school to identify how to reduce staffing levels for fiscal efficiency. The topic of the block schedule would surface again nearly six years later. In January 2016, the school board discussed an Organizational Optimization Plan which called for the elimination of block scheduling no later than the 2017-18 school year. Despite additional discussion at the February board meeting, no action was taken during the spring of 2016.

Renewed Study
As part of the district’s continuous improvement plan, a high school schedule and graduation credit study was presented to the school board in January 2017. The study reported that “Data from 45 high schools show increased outcomes with a traditional schedule: proportional attendance was 2.2% higher, APR score was 2.1% higher, ELA proficiency was 5% higher, math proficiency was 2.7% higher and science proficiency was 1.2% higher”(pg 6). Based on findings from the study, it was recommended to explore the possibility of developing a modified block framework and to provide professional development on teaching in the block that was necessary due to staff turnover. Development of a modified block was recommended for the 2017-18 school year with a possible implementation target of the 2018-19 school year.

Following the failure of a tax levy initiative in November, a secondary scheduling study was completed as an update to the previous study. The study reviewed data from 67 Missouri high schools with enrollments ranging from 700 to 1,700 students (the range of high school enrollment in St. Joseph). Data included the administrative and teaching count, student enrollment, and the high school schedule format. Findings indicated the 4×4 block schedule requires the highest level of staffing among all schedule formats and that compared to other districts on block schedules, St. Joseph high schools were overstaffed. It was determined that operating the 4×4 block schedule was costing approximately $1.9 million annually.

Recommendations
Considering factors such as student achievement, attendance, and fiscal efficiency, it was recommended to implement a traditional 7 period schedule at the high school level in August 2018. This change would bring equity to teacher planning time across the district while maintaining the current number of instructional preps for high school teachers. It would increase the frequency of classes that require repetition for success such as math and the performing arts. It would save $1.9 million annually and is expected to improve attendance and student achievement.

 

REFERENCES
Canady, R. L., & Rettig, M. D. (1995). Block scheduling: A catalyst for change in high schools (Vol. 5). Eye on Education.

Hubbuch, C. (2016). High school schedule and graduation credit study & executive summary. (Academic Services Department, St. Joseph School District).

Hubbuch, C. (2017). Secondary schedule study & executive summary. (Academic Services Department, St. Joseph School District).

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (2017). Building proportional attendance rate.

St. Joseph School District. (2004). Board of education meeting minutes: May 10, 2004.