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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 15, 2011

Shaping the school day for flexibility and economy

GUILDERLAND — The district is looking at ways to reshape the school day in order to save money.

In a lengthy presentation Tuesday, where school administrators described time as “our most finite resource,” new schedules were proposed for the high school, middle school, and five elementary schools.

“Our exploration is urgent in this time of diminishing resources,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told the school board. Facing reduced state and federal aid along with a tax levy limit, the district has projected a $3.3 million shortfall for next year. “We can expect that in the following year, and the following year, and the following year,” said Wiles of the shortfall.

At the same time, she noted there are increased pressures for student performance and concluded, “We must use this period of crisis to rethink what our schools can look like. We must begin by maximizing the use of time.”

Working with Elliot Merenbloom, whom Wiles described as the nation’s best-known expert on school schedules, Guilderland school leaders explored various scheduling models.

“Nothing you see tonight is final,” Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton told the board. “Everything is a work in progress.”

The high school currently uses a block schedule where students have four blocks a day, for lengthy classes, on basically a two-day rotation; this allows for seven classes and an advisory period for extra help or enrichment.

The proposed new schedule takes away a minute of passing time between classes (decreasing from 10 to 9 minutes), adds a minute to class time (from 88 to 89 minutes), and also increases after-school time from 45 to 49 minutes.

The biggest change is the elimination of the advisory period and the addition of a fifth 49-minute block, which would meet on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays when there are after-school buses. Clubs would no longer meet during advisory periods, but rather after school during the fifth block; likewise, students would stay after school to get help from their teachers during block five rather than during in-school advisory periods.

The new schedule would allow more flexibility and balance in scheduling, to better equalize class sizes, said Principal Thomas Lutsic. Learning centers would be set up — one for math, science, and technology and another or English, social studies, and humanities — staffed by teachers. Students could get passes from study halls to seek help at the learning centers, Lutsic said.

For the last five years, Farnsworth Middle School, which serves sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, has had a nine-period day. The school is now considering two different scheduling options.

One is an eight-period day with five 45-minute classes, two planning periods for teachers, and one duty period. The model would maintain the middle-school team approach and common planning time, said Principal Mary Summermatter.

The plan could save money while increasing instructional time from 200 to 225 minutes every day; class periods would increase from 40 to 45 minutes. While class sizes could be reduced, there would be fewer periods for support services for struggling students or for enrichment. Sixth-grade programs that aren’t required, like health or technology, could be reduced or eliminated, and core instructional time would decrease from 200 to 180 minutes per four-day rotation.

The second middle-school option is a nine-period day with a class load for each four-teacher team of about 115 students in seventh and eight grades, and a class load for each two-teacher team of about 55 students in sixth grade. There would be four core teaching periods and one literacy teaching period. “Literacy,” Singleton explained, is no longer just about reading and writing but involves technological literacy as well.

Teachers would have two planning periods, which are required in their contracts — one team and one personal — as well as professional collaboration period, and one duty period.

Students could get extra help during two periods each day but class sizes would remain large, and the model is more expensive, said Summermatter.

Guilderland has five elementary schools. Currently the six special-area classes — three for physical education, two for music, and one for art — are scheduled so that one meets each day for four days and two meet on a fifth day.

Two new scheduling options are being considered — one is a six-day rotation, and the other is a five-day rotation.

The six-day rotational schedule would allow more flexibility than the current model, said Pine Bush Elementary Principal Christopher Sanita. While it decreases instructional time in special-area classes, saving on staff costs, it would make Guilderland schools even less compliant with state requirements on physical education.

Advantages include longer instructional blocks for core subjects and more time for collaborative planning.

The five-day rotation centers on common instructional blocks. This would mean, for example, if third-graders were all taught math at the same time, those who were more advanced could be grouped together as could those who needed extra help. They could then be re-grouped according to assessments, said Guilderland Elementary Principal Allan Lockwood.

The schedule would be challenging, though, for special-education and other support staffs, Lockwood said.

Board response

“Desperate times often lead to our greatest innovations,” said Singleton at the close of the hour-long presentation.

The board then spent an hour and three-quarters grappling with understanding the proposed changes, expressing both concerns and praise.

Alluding to cuts in aid and to state mandates, board President Colleen O’Connell said, “So many things we feel are out of our control…We can control time…That’s very powerful.”

Wiles told board members that the questions they asked would guide administrators in what direction to take. “We may need to build parallel budgets,” she said, if models haven’t been agreed on in time.

Board member Richard Weisz opposed the eight-period middle-school model that would cut core instruction by 10 percent.

O’Connell said she could not support the nine-period middle-school model with three planning periods daily for teachers when the district is contractually obligated to provided only two; she called that “a deal breaker.”

Weisz also opposed “anything that makes us less compliant with the state’s physical-education requirement.” Sanita noted the state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to have daily physical education sessions, and students in fourth through sixth grades to have physical education sessions three times a week.

O’Connell, Barbara Fraterrigo, and Towle-Hilt also expressed concerns about not meeting state requirements for physical education. Singleton responded that most districts in New York State haven’t met the requirement. Locally, he said, only one district is in compliance, and that is because it has embedded physical activity into the music programs. “We could do that in any of these models,” he said.

“If we don’t get mandate relief from the state…we, like every other school district in the state, are looking at offering less,” said Weisz, noting that the changes brought about in the proposed new schedules are “more close to ‘less’ than ‘different.’”

With Guilderland’s declining enrollment, Weisz asked if the district has considered closing one of the five elementary schools instead.

Wiles said, it hasn’t been looked at but, if enrollment continues to decline, it will “probably” be looked at in the future.

Fraterrigo asked that closing a school be looked at this year. “Just take a peek,” she said.

Wiles went on, in answer to Weisz’s assertion, “The goal is not to pretend ‘less’ isn’t going to happen, but how do we make the most of less?”

“Now’s the chance to let loose the dogs of learning,” said Weisz, stating that the old model of a teacher in a classroom with students should be replaced with a new model of a mentor in a resource room with learners.

“Let the students loose and have them learn things they want to learn,” said Weisz.

“We still need those adults to be those mentors,” said Vice President Towle-Hilt. “A machine won’t do it.”

Board member Rose Levy asked what teachers’ responses to the new schedule proposals have been. “I would say it’s mixed,” said Lutsic of the high school faculty. “We haven’t taken a vote…I would say the majority favor advisory and keeping things the way they are.”

“It’s been an ongoing dialogue,” said Summermatter of the middle school.

“We need to coordinate among five buildings,” said Lockwood of the elementary level. He, too, described the reaction as “mixed,” noting there was some excitement, as well as some concerns.

Board member Allan Simpson pushed for figures on savings the new schedules would produce, and, again, Wiles said it was too soon to make those calculations. “This is a conceptual discussion about how we might use time,” she said. “We’re trying for flexibility with a schedule…Right now, we’re locked in…where our only option is to have less…fewer electives, larger class sizes.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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