Killing Time

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 15, 1997 14 min read
The new school day lasts 12 hours and allows teachers to fit more activities into longer class periods and to have flexibility in their own schedules.

Austin, Texas

For years, Joyce Brisco played a daily game of beat the clock, struggling to fit a speech and debate lesson into a 55-minute class period. Often, she says, she just had time to outline a topic and touch on ways to research and argue a point when electronic bells would break in, signaling the end of class.

But here at Bowie High School, those bells slowly are being silenced, bound to become just another bit of educational nostalgia.

Like their colleagues in thousands of high schools across the nation, educators at Bowie have mounted a battle against time, shaping the hours and minutes of the school day into larger blocks to reduce the limitations on teachers’ instructional strategies and, many say, student learning. But at Bowie, they are playing a slightly different game from most. This school year, administrators and teachers are pushing the limits of the school day beyond commonly accepted boundaries, dividing it into blocks of time to fit the academic appetites and needs of the students, as well as the state’s increasing credit requirements for graduation. They also are hoping to alleviate a severe crowding problem that is expected only to get worse.

“I have always felt restricted in a quantitative schedule, but now I feel like I have a qualitative schedule,” Brisco says. “My students will reap the benefits of good classroom teaching.”

The new school day lasts 12 hours and allows Brisco and other teachers to fit more activities into longer class periods and to have flexibility in their own schedules. Suzie Doer can teach English and psychology classes at Bowie in the morning, leave for midday graduate classes at the University of Texas at Austin, and return in time to teach again in the evening.

Senior Amanda Gutierrez takes day and evening classes and has time to work and complete an internship for the school’s culinary-arts program. Gutierrez says she is usingthe flexible scheduling to make up for more than a semester of classes she missed last year because of illness so that she will be back on track for graduation. Sophomore Apollo Mulhauser, who is taking accelerated classes in science and math, will finish this school year in junior standing and expects to graduate a year early.

Classes at Bowie High begin at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes earlier than before, and the last class ends at 8:30 p.m.

Filling time and covering material are no longer the dominant factors in planning classes, staffing, and curriculum, teachers at Bowie say. In this initial year of restructuring, the school’s faculty and administrators are trying to break away from the timeworn policies and administrative procedures that have dictated the length of classes and the hours the schoolhouse doors remain open.

Says Principal Kent Ewing: “It is so hard to change a high school because of the momentum and magnitude of what you are doing. But now, it’s common-sense time. This is all about what’s best for kids.”

Ewing doesn’t like to call what the high school is doing an “experiment,” mostly because of the cynical comments the word tends to draw from critics of the flavor-of-the-month reforms that have come and gone over the years. But an experiment it is--and a tediously planned one, at that.

Classes at Bowie High begin at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes earlier than before, and the last class ends at 8:30 p.m. Scheduling options allow students to choose 55-minute classes during the traditional seven-period day, two-hour sessions on alternate days and evenings, and accelerated classes that meet each day and are completed in one semester. They can choose any combination of the traditional and alternative plans.

The new schedule means that students can attend class mornings and evenings, with a block of free time in the middle of the day to study, work, or take classes at the local community college or university.

“This schedule made it possible for me to catch up in school, and I can still work and do an internship in the culinary-arts program,” Gutierrez says.

Of the nearly 23,000 public and private high schools nationwide, experts estimate that 40 percent are turning away from traditional schedules to deal with crowding, increasing graduation requirements, students’ demand for a greater variety of offerings, and the search for a more effective use of time in the classroom, among other issues.

“Scheduling is an untapped resource that can serve as a catalyst for school improvement,” write Robert Lynn Canady and Michael D. Rettig in their 1995 book, Block Scheduling: A Catalyst for Change in High Schools. “With open minds and equal doses of creativity and technical expertise, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students can harness this power to escape the paralysis of the single-period every-day lock step high school schedule.”

The National Education Commission on Time and Learning urged educators to “to use all time in new, different, and better ways.”

Most of the schools embracing the movement follow one particular block schedule. But, as educators discover that even innovative approaches to breaking up the day have limitations, more and more schools, including Bowie High, are trying combinations, Rettig, an associate professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., said in a recent interview.

The National Education Commission on Time and Learning, set up by Congress in 1991, called for change in its 1994 report, “Prisoners of Time.” Arguing that “time is learning’s warden,” and that, while the structuring of time in schools is a national obsession, its effective use is not, the commission urged educators “to use all time in new, different, and better ways.”

In the early 1990s, very few high schools were breaking the traditional school-day mold. Most followed the pattern that was standardized early in the century when schools started using “Carnegie units” to measure high school work based on time, offering from six to eight class periods of 40 to 60 minutes each.

“The every-day-period high school schedule ... has remained remarkably unchanged for the past 70 years,” Canady and Rettig say in their book, though there has been experimentation over the years. In the 1960s and 1970s, educators seeking to break from rigid schedules turned to a flexible module format, which used 20-minute blocks combined in a variety of ways to create long and short class periods. But that format eventually faded away because of problems with student discipline that were attributed to the blocks of free time built into it.

In the 1990s, the number of schools switching to block scheduling of some type has multiplied rapidly, Rettig says, but not without resistance.

At Bowie High School, bureaucracy threatened to derail attempts to change the schedule. Principal Ewing--described as a maverick by his colleagues--had butted heads with district administrators in the past, and his latest plan raised some eyebrows. But Ewing had spent years planning the changes and was determined to succeed. He set out to involve as many parts of the school community as possible in what students had dubbed the Mayflower Project--likening it to sailing uncharted waters.

After dozens of months of meetings, planning sessions, brainstorming, and discussions, a scheduling plan was drafted.

Three years ago, administrators convened a committee of faculty, students, parents, and community members to come up with a vision of the school in the 21st century. All ideas were welcome. They talked about the latest research on school restructuring, brain-based learning, strategic planning, team building, curriculum development, and other popular topics.

Then last year, after dozens of months of meetings, planning sessions, brainstorming, and discussions, a scheduling plan was drafted. But in addition to more varied class periods, the plan calls for an interdisciplinary curriculum and team teaching across subjects, more student choices and personal responsibility for their learning, and classes that are based on mastery learning and student performance, not seat time.

Rumors of a radical plan for the school made their way through the grapevine, and some teachers, parents, and students became alarmed. Would students be required to stay in school 12 hours a day? Would all classes be offered in the extended format? Would teachers be expected to handle more classes? Would the potential for more free time create chaos and increase behavioral problems among students?

School officials headed off the controversy by reaching out to all interested parties. Student facilitators were trained to lead discussions among focus groups of parents, teachers, and fellow students. Those discussions were followed by a two-hour community forum that packed the meeting room.

“Students and teachers were either really happy about it or totally rejected the idea,” says Sarah Faulkner, who was a facilitator at some of the sessions last year while a senior at the school. “Some students felt like we were turning everything upside down for a small amount of students” who would participate.

Many doubted the plan would work and came up with a heady list of barriers.

The first was money. The plan sounded costly because of the additional courses and extended hours that would place a heavier burden on the teaching staff. Support personnel, including counselors and nurses, also would have to be on campus throughout the longer school day.

To limit costs, teachers were asked to volunteer for an extra course for which they would receive 20 percent additional compensation. The support staff juggled hours so that some of them would work through the evenings. The idea, Ewing says, is that money would be saved on new salaries and employee benefits and teachers would have incentives to pick up the additional load.

The extended time format of block classes—which means fewer hours in class each week—is not suitable for all disciplines, some teachers argue.
About 400 of the school’s nearly 3,000 students are in block classes, which are only offered in honors and advanced English and social studies.

But many of the anticipated problems have not yet materialized, McBrearty says.

The first few weeks of school McBrearty and her colleagues would find students attempting to hide among those who were out of class legitimately. But a new student ID system, which has a photo on one side and a copy of the student’s class schedule on the other, is expected to reduce the problem. Students also have limited options for free periods. Unless they are seniors, who are permitted to leave school grounds, they must spend their time in the cafeteria, the library, or with a teacher. The cafeteria is being upgraded into a student union with computers, work areas, and extended food-service hours.

“We are still trying to figure out how to [keep] kids from cutting class. But they do that even without block scheduling,” Ewing says.

School officials say they intentionally have started the program slowly. About 400 of the school’s nearly 3,000 students are in block classes, which are only offered in honors and advanced English and social studies. Accelerated courses are open primarily to juniors and seniors. Evening classes are limited to only a few this year.

Because only the brightest and most motivated students are involved in the new classes, there have been few discipline problems, and teachers have had little trouble keeping students engaged for longer periods of time, officials say.

Over the next few years, more options will be opened to students in 10th through 12th grades, Huffman says. In the meantime, administrators continue to promote the idea of student responsibility. Eventually, students will be expected to get to class on time without the bells that signal the end of breaks between classes. If they want to spend free time in the courtyard, they must be doing something constructive--or at least not destructive.

Growth of the program is critical. School officials hope that if the voluntary schedule variations become popular enough there will be no need for forced changes, like those at other area schools.

An economic boom has created serious school crowding in this thriving city. Bowie High, like most of the other nine secondary schools in the Austin school district, is overflowing. At nearly 10 years old, it is the city’s newest high school, and is expected to remain the baby of the bunch for at least a couple more years. It also draws its students from the largest area--80 square miles, or one-third of the district--where new housing developments are rapidly sprouting. Most of the district’s other high schools have been implementing alternative-scheduling plans over the past few years to deal with growth. Some have split shifts, with some students attending in the morning and others in the afternoon and evening. Most have adopted one of the more common forms of block scheduling.

The counselors now have to manipulate student schedules by hand. With only one counselor for every 500 students, it’s no easy task.

Most of those options, by themselves, were unpopular with Bowie’s teachers, students, and parents. But this school year, Bowie’s enrollment is about 20 percent over capacity and is expected to increase by 1,000 students within five years, for an enrollment of 4,000.

Officials hope to maintain the reputation Bowie has gained for its solid academic performance. Despite high scores on state achievement tests and college-entrance exams--which are taken by more than 80 percent of students--and its track record for sending graduates to top universities or into high-paying jobs, Bowie has struggled with a dropout rate that was deemed too high by state standards. The school was even labeled low-performing several years ago, when it reported a nearly 6 percent dropout rate to the Texas Education Agency. Bowie, and other schools in the district, fought that designation and regained their former status after learning of record-keeping errors that inflated the numbers.

For the six academic counselors at Bowie High School, scheduling now requires new expertise. In the past, a computer program quickly and efficiently plotted all the student schedules, with relatively few major errors. But the software is not programmed to juggle the complex combination of scheduling options from which students can now choose. The counselors now have to manipulate student schedules by hand, plotting courses of various lengths on time grids.

With only one counselor for every 500 students, it’s no easy task.

“It is really putting the burden on counselors to have to scramble and check credits and make sure students aren’t putting themselves in jeopardy” of not meeting the new graduation requirements, which will increase from 22 credits to 24 or 26 credits for regular and honors diplomas, respectively, Huffman says.

But many of the students currently participating in the classes are putting themselves in a different dilemma. They are loading up on too many classes. Huffman says some students are again choosing elective courses, such as journalism and accounting, that had faded out years ago because students didn’t have the time in their schedules.

“It’s like going to a buffet and loading up on the selections, but you can’t eat it all,” she says.

Stacks of scheduling grids sit on Huffman’s crowded desk. They are now an all-too-familiar sight.

A few weeks into school, some students discovered that they were overloaded and wanted to drop some advanced-placement courses.

Huffman has been the primary coordinator of the new schedules. She spent long days throughout the summer trying to sort through the confusion created by the sheer scope of the task. Most students have seven traditional periods a day, plus lunch. Others attend some of the shorter periods combined with block classes. Some may take evening classes in addition to their day schedules. And still others combine longer classes every day in an accelerated format.

Just weeks before school was set to start, glitches began surfacing. Some classes were dropped for lack of interest, forcing students who had signed up for them to either choose other blocked courses or to go back into the traditional schedule.

A few weeks into school, some students discovered that they were overloaded and wanted to drop some advanced-placement courses. If those classes were in the block format, they had to find another class in that time slot or have a two-hour gap in their schedules.

Apollo Mulhauser, the student taking the accelerated courses, spent a lot of time with Huffman at the beginning of the school year reworking his schedule after some of his classes didn’t pan out. They had to balance his desire to carry a full load of classes--with no free periods--with his mother’s concerns that the challenge of so many advanced courses would be too difficult. Mulhauser ended up compromising on some classes he hadn’t really wanted, but says he’s satisfied with his final class roster.

“This schedule offered me a much better opportunity to really challenge myself,” he says. “I can take more challenging courses ... and double up on science courses. But I don’t recommend it to everyone.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 1997 edition of Education Week as Killing Time