Killing Time

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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.

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