Time Warp

August 01, 1996 6 min read

It’s 7 a.m., and senior David Cone’s day at Evergreen High School is already under way. While some of his schoolmates are eating their Wheaties, brushing their teeth, and otherwise preparing for the day, David is in class--working on a geography assignment. He is putting in time before many of his classmates show up for the day as part of an increasingly popular way to organize the school day known as block scheduling.

It’s basically a “less is more’’ approach, in which students take fewer classes each school day but spend more time in each class. Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash., has had the schedule in place now for two years.

Most class periods at Evergreen last an hour and 20 minutes, and students take four courses per trimester instead of the traditional six courses per semester. Courses that used to last a semester now take a trimester, and courses that used to go for a year now run for two trimesters. And for students like David who play in the school band, school starts a little bit earlier each day.

A 1994 report by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, an independent panel temporarily convened by Congress, called time “the missing element in the school reform debate.’' The report suggested that the traditional six-hour school day and the 180-day school year “be relegated to museums as an exhibit of our education past.’' Among other suggestions, the report advised schools to be less rigid in how they use time and urged the use of block scheduling and an extended school year.

At least 14 percent of high schools nationwide use some form of block scheduling, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Biology Teachers, and interest in alternative forms of scheduling is growing. States with large numbers of schools on a block schedule include Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, and Texas, according to Robert Lynn Canady, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Block-scheduling advocates say longer classes create more opportunities for hands-on lessons and allow students to concentrate on their work for longer stretches without being interrupted by a bell. They also argue that the schedule carves out more time for instruction by reducing the amount of time students spend walking from class to class and teachers spend taking attendance or getting a class to settle down.

While some high schools, such as Evergreen, are experimenting with a four-period trimester system, others are trying different plans. Here are a few:

  • 4 X 4: Students take four 90-minute classes a day and complete them in a semester rather than a full year. A student might take math, English, Spanish, and art in the fall, followed by biology, history, physical education, and music in the spring.

  • A / B: Each semester students take eight 90-minute classes, but classes meet every other day, four on day “A’’ and four on day “B.’'

  • 75-15, 75-15: Students take four classes for a 75-day fall term, followed by a 15-day intersession for enrichment activities or remedial work. The pattern is repeated in the spring.

“Teachers would just pass out if someone asked them to prepare eight different classes every day. Why is it we think students have time to do that?’' says Canady, a block-scheduling expert. “You have got kids who are just as busy after school as teachers are. When are they supposed to get seven or eight different preparations done?’'

Like most teenagers, David Cone tries to get as much sleep as he can. But most days that’s tough. He must be at school by 7 a.m., a half-hour earlier than other students at Evergreen because he plays in the band. When the school first considered going to block scheduling two years ago, music teachers were concerned that their students would suffer if they could not rehearse year-round. But the staff came up with a solution: create a two-hour period that starts a half-hour early. Then divide it into two traditional 50-minute periods, one for music and one for an academic class. David starts his day with this companion class, Contemporary World Problems. Then at 7:50, he grabs his clarinet and heads off to band.

At 8:45, he leaves band for Computer-Aided Drafting, his first extended-length period of the day. As he walks through the hallways, there is no shouting, no banging locker doors. One reason the passing period is less frenetic is that students have 10 minutes to get to class, instead of the typical five. “One of the best things the block does is slow down the school,’' Canady says. The old way, he explains, “is just a treadmill--we give them five minutes to go to the bathroom, go to their locker, and get a date. Then they come in late, and we send them back for a tardy slip.’'

According to Evergreen principal Nancy Bush-Lange, discipline problems have decreased, and morale has increased. There are fewer fights now, and 75 percent of students and 73 percent of teachers report that they are less stressed.

David, who wants to be an architect, says he especially enjoys having a long period for his drafting class. It gives him time to figure out if he has made a mistake in a design, correct it, and move ahead. “I find the day goes by much faster now,’' he says. “You get more engrossed in what you are doing.’'

Still, the long periods can drag on for students stuck with a class or teacher they don’t particularly like. If teachers are good and keep their interest, block scheduling is terrific, students say. But if they are bad, it can be awful.

The drafting class ends at 10:20, and already it’s time for lunch. On the previous schedule, there were two 30-minute lunch periods. Now there is a common 50-minute period, allowing everyone to eat at a more leisurely pace.

But for David, 10:20 is just too early to eat, so he usually waits until he gets home. He is not taking a class during 4th period this term, so he finishes his day at 12:30. Like many students, David uses lunch period to participate in extracurricular activities. Many clubs meet during lunch instead of after school. And students can get extra help. Math teachers, for example, take turns staffing a lunchtime tutorial.

After lunch break, David heads off to English class. Teacher Rosemary Fryer takes attendance, returns a quiz, and hands out another, this one on vocabulary from Macbeth. Then the class spends about 50 minutes reading Act IV of the Shakespearean drama aloud, stopping every few minutes to discuss some of the more complex passages.

Although many teachers at Evergreen say they try to use the longer periods for more innovative classroom activities, some students complain that their teachers still lecture--just for longer. Others say some teachers use the extra time to let students do homework. But on the whole, David and his classmates give the block approach high marks.

Teachers also are enthusiastic. Even some who initially opposed the new schedule now say they would never go back to the old way. They have fewer students each term--about 90 instead of 150. What’s more, their in-school preparation time has jumped from 50 minutes to 90 minutes a day.

“I don’t think we are as tired,’' says home economics teacher Janet Railsback. “Before, by the end of the day, I’d just be brain-dead.’'

--Meg Sommerfeld

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Time Warp