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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 10, 2009
“Maintain the integrity of the block”
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Principal Brian McCann made a forceful case Tuesday night for changing the shape of the school day, restructuring the high school’s block schedule.
“I propose tonight an opportunity for significant structural change that will move our high school program forward in ways that are absolutely limitless for our teachers and students,” McCann told the school board.
He said the new schedule would give students more choices in course selection and would allow time for faculty to work collaboratively.
While board members expressed support for the concept, several had reservations about the cost.
School board President Richard Weisz called it “a great educational opportunity” but went on to say, “Until I see what the entire budget says, I don’t know if I can support it.”
Referring to a program that, during last year’s budget deliberations, had the support of the board for academic reasons but was taken in and out of the budget because of the added costs, Weisz said, “It could be this year’s full-day kindergarten.”
“What did I do to you?” quipped McCann in response.
Superintendent John McGuire said he supported the restructuring and hoped the board would make it a budget priority for the coming school year. The board will decide on its stance at the next meeting, Jan. 5.
The current district budget is $85 million. A state budget gap has led to concerns about cuts in state aid as federal stimulus funds are slated to last just one more year.
McCann said the changes in the high school schedule for next year would cost $187,000 to hire 2.8 teachers, and another $125,000 to hire five teaching assistants.
The last restructuring of the school day at Guilderland was in 1997, when the school moved from a nine-period day of 45 minutes each to a block schedule that allowed for longer class periods and an advisory period.
Students, teachers, and parents were surveyed for their views on scheduling. When 35 percent of parents expressed concerns about limitations in the current schedule, McCann said, “That’s where seeds got planted.”
That 70 percent of the staff supported having a block schedule was “a relief and encouragement,” said McCann.
Last May, the high school cabinet, a shared decision-making team, resolved to maintain the block schedule in some form and to maintain the advisory period in some form.
Five concerns were raised about the current schedule. Most importantly, McCann said, students’ choices of classes, particularly electives, are limited. There is no time for teachers to collaborate. It’s hard for absent students to make up work. Time in advisory periods is used inconsistently and sometimes ineffectively. And, students want more physical education; currently phys. ed. class is just once every four days.
The cabinet considered 12 block schedules, whittling the field to four that “would still maintain the integrity of the block,” said McCann.
He said he was surprised when a student survey showed that close to 39 percent 653 students would take an additional class if they had the chance. He had expected the number would be around 150, and called it “a piece of data we could not ignore.”
The cabinet ended up recommending an eighth instructional block, maintaining the after-school activity period, and changing the advisory period to a daily period in the middle of the school day.
Currently, the advisory period takes up one of the eight blocks, scheduled over two days.
The proposed schedule would have two morning blocks of 82 minutes each followed by a mid-day advisory period of 50 minutes. That would be followed by a third block of 112 minutes, which would allow planning time for teachers. The fourth block would have 82 minutes. And the final activity period would last for 30 minutes.
The current schedule consists of four blocks each day. The first is 85 minutes, the second is 95, the third is 120, and the fourth is 85.
The new schedule, unlike the current one, would also allow for split blocks.
With about 650 students wanting to take an additional course, typically four to six more teachers would be needed, McCann said, but, with a slight decline predicted in enrollment, it is expected that 2.8 teachers would do.
The five teaching assistants are needed, he said, to cover study halls. He stressed, “We have no plan to re-create the old-fashioned holding pens for students.” The study halls, instead, will be used as “an integral part of remediation” required by the state for struggling students, McCann said.
“This is a critical opportunity,” said McCann. “The structural change will have benefits for every Guilderland High School student for the next 20 or 30 years.”
The new schedule, he said, would allow for both enrichment opportunities and intervention services. It would also allow for flexibility in scheduling and the development of innovative new courses.
Also, McCann said, the new schedule would allow for team teaching and the development of a professional learning community.
The idea is “catching fire” with the faculty, he said. “This is the year to do it,” McCann said. “Teachers are primed and ready to go.”
Weisz asked, if the new schedule were included as part of the first draft of the budget, could it be taken out later.
Students start choosing their courses for the next year in January, McCann said, and scheduling is finalized in May or June.
“It’s going to be incredibly complex to build this eight-period day into our schedule and then midstream in April have it pulled back…We’ll do what we have to do,” responded McCann. “It’s that important to us.”
He added that it would be “really wonderful if we had an absolute ‘yes’ before January.”
Board member Colleen O’Connell said, “If the budget goes down in May, it might be yanked out.”
“What we really need to know,” said McCann “is if this is something conceptually the board can support and budgetarily will fight for.”
O’Connell also expressed concern that the 653 students who said they would choose a course over study hall was “a fictional group of kids” since the seniors surveyed will graduate and the eighth-graders who will be freshmen weren’t surveyed.
In other Suburban Council schools, McCann said, double the percentage of students choose classes, so he has no doubt at least 650 will be interested.
O’Connell also said that Guilderland is a competitive school and students are “under incredible pressure already” to take on too much; she was concerned about adding to that pressure. McCann responded that he would not advocate the new structure if he weren’t confident that counselors and parents would be able to help students handle the pressure.
“I can support this…I think it’s very exciting,” said board member Denise Eisele.
Board Vice President Catherine Barber said that she could see “a lot of merit” in the proposed schedule she noted that, for years, people have complained they can’t take electives but she wanted more details on the financial aspects.
Board member Julie Cuneo was concerned about the school day starting too early, leaving students too tired to learn, and she was concerned about the time between classes being reduced from 10 minutes to seven.
McCann responded that 80 percent of the high school students are already in the building by 7:30 a.m. and he said that, in two years, no one would remember there used to be 10 minutes between classes or when school used to start.
“We want to maximize as many minutes as we can,” he said.
Board member Judy Slack wondered if expenses would increase in the second and third years. McCann said he might possibly ask for more staff in future years if more students want to take extra classes. “Getting the structure in place is what is critical,” he said.
Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt, a retired middle school teacher, said she supported the concept and was excited about the chance for developing a professional learning community as she had seen its power at the middle school.
She said she had financial concerns, though, and asked if the new schedule could be adopted without hiring any more staff, for example, by cutting current classes with fewer than 20 students.
“There is no way we could absorb 650 students taking a new course,” McCann responded. “We lost almost three teachers last year,” he said, stating there is no “fat” at the high school.
Having 1,500 students “stuck in study hall” would defeat the purpose of the new plan, he said.
McCann went on, “For as long as I’ve been here, Guilderland has prided itself with being on the cutting edge…We really haven’t been able to take anything on for the last few years,” he said, stating this plan would restore Guilderland’s prestige.
“I think it’s prudent spending,” said board member Emilio Genzano of the plan. “Conceptually, I like the structure.”
“It’s a landmark piece of work,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo. “What we’ve heard consistently over the years is kids lack electives.” She also said that academic intervention for struggling students is a state mandate, and the schedule allows for needed flexibility.
On funding, Fraterrigo asked about looking into advanced courses that duplicate one another, but concluded, “I’m very willing to sell it…You just can’t dilly-dally.”
“I know this comes with a price tag…Is the price tag worth it?” asked McCann, answering himself, “Absolutely. Preparing for the 21st Century is not just a cliché; it’s an obligation.”