Killing Time

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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."

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