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District Might Let Students Pick Teachers

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High schools in a Virginia district soon could be among the few in the country where students can pick their own teachers and class periods.

Edward L. Kelly, the superintendent of Prince William County schools, recently invited any district high school principal who is interested in the idea to submit a plan for next school year. School board members, most of whom support the proposal, would vote whether to approve the plans in April.

Prince William schools currently assign students to classes by taking into account only which courses they want, not which teachers would teach them or time of day they would take them.

Giving students a choice would better match teaching and learning styles, Mr. Kelly said. Now, he said, "we schedule children mostly for administrative reasons. We don't do it for instructional purposes."

College students take it for granted that they can choose their own professors and class times. But the practice is rare in high schools, said Michael Rettig, an associate professor of education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

The idea has generated debate in the 48,800-student Prince William district, located in suburban Washington, because of questions about what would happen to a teacher whose classes were not highly sought after.

Some might presume--unfairly--that a teacher's "not being picked would be an automatic given that this must be a poor teacher," said Meg Gruber, the president of the Prince William Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the county and an affiliate of the National Education Association. "Is it the teacher that's not being picked or the course that's not being picked?" she asked.

Mr. Kelly said teacher accountability is not the focus of the proposal. But he added: "If I were a building principal and I had a teacher who no one picked for his or her class, I would want to know why."

Who Gets First Pick?

Most of Prince William's seven high school principals say they are enthusiastic about Mr. Kelly's plan.

"I think it's a good proposal," said Pamela White, the principal of Woodbridge High School, which has 3,000 students. "Any time you allow students or anybody choice, the initial probability for those students to succeed is raised."

In addition, she said, "over a period of time, it would improve the quality of instruction."

Teachers express reservations, however. Jane Huestis, a teacher for students with learning disabilities at Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge, Va., said she's concerned about how students would make their choices.

"I see where the maturity level of most students is not to the point of making a decision that's best for their educational interest. They're looking at their social interest or what's easiest," Ms. Huestis said.

"My concern is, who is going to have first shot at the good teachers?" said David Palanzi, a business teacher at Hylton High School in Woodbridge. "What happens to students that don't get the good teachers?"

Superintendent Kelly declined to recommend how Prince William students should go about picking their teachers.

But some schools around the country use a process called "arena scheduling," in which students line up for classes at tables in a gymnasium or cafeteria once a year. Each class has a certain number of slots; when the slots are full, students must choose another class.

Arena scheduling was popular in the 1970s, but the practice fell out of favor.

"The problem with [arena scheduling] is that it didn't put everyone on an equal footing," said David Pottle, the guidance director at the Southern Berkshire Regional district in Massachusetts, which allowed students to pick teachers and classes through this process in the 1970s. "The early bird got the worm."

At most schools these days, schedules are compiled with the help of a computer, said Mr. Rettig of James Madison University. In general, computerized scheduling tends to minimize the number of schedule conflicts for the benefit of all students in a school, he said.

"There are some obvious selling points for [arena scheduling] for parents and students--if they're the lucky parents and students," he added.

Experience Elsewhere

Woodford County High School in Versailles, Ky., began using arena scheduling two years ago, and staff members there say the move has been successful.

"We don't have any particular teacher who is avoided like the plague," said Max Gill, a guidance counselor at the 1,100-student school.

Mr. Gill said the school adopted arena scheduling "to get students to assume more responsibility for their scheduling." The new process has also cut down on late scheduling changes.

Kyle Fannin, who teaches U.S. history at Woodford, said offering students a choice gives teachers "an incentive to do more. All the teachers are really trying to improve their courses, because it's competitive."

But there are drawbacks for some teachers, he added.

"If you're a new teacher or not a very popular teacher, you might have trouble filling a class. I guess that's the price you pay to give the students more choice," Mr. Fannin said.

Wally Cook, a Woodford math teacher with 28 years' experience, said filling classes "is a matter of salesmanship. You have to get out and sell your class."

Lenox Memorial High School in Lenox, Mass., allows its students to pick their teachers, but not with arena scheduling. The school, which has only 220 students, tried arena scheduling and found it to be rife with problems, said Tom Roche, the head guidance counselor for the school.

"It seemed more like a popularity contest, where students would swarm to the most popular teachers' tables," he said. "Then the 31st student would be told, 'You got cut off.' Then there would be a real scene in the arena."

Now at Lenox Memorial, students sign up for classes in the spring and are notified of their schedules and teachers during the summer. Students are free to switch out of a class if they don't care for the teacher, but they're less inclined to do this when they see how it affects their whole schedule, Mr. Roche said.

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