Block Scheduling

What to do when neither alternating nor solid block scheduling is enough

We at Irvine High School have been on our current block schedule since September, 1996. Our formal name for it is "Academic Focus 4/4 Semester Plan," but in our every day parlance, we call it blended block scheduling. We developed this schedule out of a desire to improve student achievement, to provide a higher quality educational experience for our students, and to create a less stressful environment on our campus. In this pursuit, we endeavored to accommodate a wide variety of different, and sometimes conflicting, needs.

What our schedule looks like:

 

Regular Schedule:

Period Time:
0 7:00 - 7:55
1 8:00 - 9:30
Advisement 9:35 - 9:45
Break 9:45 - 9:55
2 10:00 - 11:30
Lunch 11:30 - 12:10
3 12:15 - 1:45
4 1:55 - 3:25

How It Works

We have four ninety minute periods per day. (Only the newspaper production class and marching band meet during our fifty-five minute zero period.) During those periods, some classes, including math and English, World Studies, U.S. History, some non-college prep science classes, Spanish levels 1 - 4, a few elective classes, and French, German, and Korean 1 and 2, are solid block, meeting every day for a semester. In these classes, students complete a year's worth of work in a semester, earning 10 credits toward graduation. Students take math and English, for example, for one semester each year. Other classes, lab science, all Advanced Placement classes, and we have twelve different offerings, upper levels of French, German, and Korean, and some elective classes, meet every other day for a year. Most elective courses in fine arts, performing arts, and technology education, most academic elective courses, and all physical education classes meet every other day for a semester. In each of the alternating block classes, students earn 5 credits per semester. Athletics meets during fourth period every day for 10 credits per semester. When out of season, athletics meets for ninety minutes per day. When in season, practice time extends beyond the end of the school day.

What this means for students

Under this configuration, every student has a schedule that includes some combination of both solid and alternating block classes. Students involved in performing arts, athletics, student government, or in yearbook or journalism, can opt to take four classes per day. Because they have four classes on both A and B days, we say that they have eight classes. All other students may take seven classes, with the option of taking a no credit Homework Lab to fill in the eighth period. Most of our freshman and many of our sophomores take four classes per day and are in school from 8:00 AM until 3:30 PM. Most juniors and seniors take three classes per day. Many of our seniors opt to take fewer classes or distribute their classes in such a way as to allow for flexibility to take college courses, R.O.P. (vocational) classes, to serve as interns, or to work. With the alternating blocks, student may even have three or four classes one day and two or three classes the next. They may start late or end early. With parent permission, students may have open periods and are issued passes that allow them to be in the library, the Student Center, or off campus.

What this means for teachers

Full time teachers teach three classes per day and have a ninety minute prep period daily. Teachers with solid block classes have the same students each day for the semester. For teachers with alternating block classes, they see three groups of students every other day, one group of students on the "A" Day, the other on the "B" day. The semester begins on an A day, followed by a B day. A and B days simply alternate throughout the semester.

Lower class size-- Before block scheduling, teachers taught 5 classes with a contract maximum of 175 students, for an average of 35 students per class. Now teachers teach 6 classes, either 3 solid block classes each semester or 3 alternating block classes every other day. Several teachers teach a schedule that includes a mix of solid and alternating block classes. Regardless, with the contract maximum still 175, class size has been reduced to an average of 29.5 per class.

Fewer students per day-- With 5 classes of 35 students per day, teachers used to see up to 175 students per day. Now with 3 classes of less than 30 students, daily teacher contact is below 90 students per day. For teachers in academic areas like math and English, they have fewer than 90 students per semester.

Teaching minutes-- Our contract stipulates that teachers have a 280 minute day. This remains the same despite the changes in the schedule.

The advantages of blending the block

Because students have only three or four classes per day, with longer blocks of time in each class, there is more time each day to complete the learning cycle, to process, practice and apply what has been learned, to complete projects or labs. Within each class period there can be a wider variety of activities to engage students in the learning process.

Students do not take all of their academic classes during the same semester, which allows them to focus on fewer subjects at a time. Whenever possible, academic classes are balanced between semesters, so that class load is distributed evenly. Work loads are more manageable, with fewer tests, quizzes, and assignments to prepare for each day. Further, because students have both solid and alternating block classes at the same time, every other day is different, giving variety and freshness to the student routine.

By offering classes in both solid and alternating block formats, there is more flexibility in the master schedule and added opportunity for students to enroll in alternating block elective classes. Enrollment in all the elective areas, particularly vocal and instrumental music, fine arts, drama, and foreign language, swelled under this system. One of our concerns as we entered this experiment was that our excellent performing arts department might in some way be compromised. Instead, the programs have flourished.

Some disadvantages of block scheduling

The problems with block scheduling are not inherent to the blended block system, but to block scheduling per se. For example, teachers who teach only alternating block classes now have six classes each semester. Though the class size is reduced so that they may have no additional student contacts nor do they teach any longer than before, they do have six classes that meet. If teachers offer classes in both formats, particularly the same class in different formats during the same semester, the pacing and rhythm of the different formats is often difficult to maintain. Sometimes in alternating academic classes, homework completion lags behind that of solid block. The presumption is that students have more time to forget to do it or have more difficulty managing their time over an extended period.

The History of the Process

Our story begins during the school year 1991- 1992, when we had a 1274 Restructuring Planning Grant. One of our staff focus groups was the Time/Space Committee and out of their research and discussions came the idea that we needed to change the way we do business to improve student achievement by changing the configuration of our curricular offerings by somehow changing the way the school day looked and felt. We didn't get the implementation grant, so our work was temporarily on hold. Two years, and a new principal later, the hew and cry for a schedule reconfiguration, for longer blocks of time to teach, began to reach a deafening pitch. In 1995, we began the process of researching what we wanted to do. On a staff development day in May, groups that included every staff member, some parents, and some students visited twelve schools from San Diego to Santa Barbara that had some sort of alternative schedule, including straight alternating and straight Copernican and various configurations that included some blocked and some regular days each week. Over a series of morning meetings, each group reported to the entire staff about what schedule configuration they had encountered, sharing their observations, the comments made by teachers and students at the various schools, and the advantages and disadvantages of each system. We began discussions about what to adopt and turned over the job of producing a workable schedule to the BSTF -- the Block Scheduling Task Force-- a group of twelve teachers who worked over the summer of 1995, creating the schedule we later adopted.

In the fall, we began discussions of how to use the schedule -- would we teach with alternating or solid blocks? The BSTF staged debates detailing the advantages and drawbacks of each. Preferences for each fell along departmental lines and we began to run into conflicts among various groups until we realized that we could create a schedule that incorporates both formats, the blended block. Each department was then given the responsibility for deciding for itself which configuration to choose. From those decisions came the master scheduling configuration we now employ, although some modifications have been made since implementation. Throughout this process, the BSTF served as the group that guided the decisions and facilitated the process.

There was, however, one bump in the road that occurred during the fall semester of 1995. A group of teachers on campus, calling themselves the Win-Win Committee, had concerns about what they called "contract issues"-- maintaining the contract limit of 175 students, teaching 5 as opposed to 6 classes per year, the assignment of prep periods. They were not satisfied with the assurances of the BSTF or the Administration that each of these issues had been resolved and that the resolutions would be honored. As many others were completely committed to implementation, there was bitterness and dissension among the staff.

To resolve the impasse, we engaged in interest-based bargaining, the model used by our district for contract negotiations. The Win-Win Committee and the BSTF each selected three teacher representatives who engaged in a bargaining session to identify the areas of interest and negotiate a solution. Our session was facilitated by two district teacher negotiators and was concluded in a day, the time proscribed for it. Our principal and our CTA rep served as resources about contract issues and school policy, but were not part of the teams. Once an agreement was forged (see Report of the Committee and Agreements) we went forward with a successful vote to begin implementation the following school year, 1996 - 97.

The Rationale-- Why we decided to structure the schedule this way

In preparing ourselves to make a change, we collected information about what others were finding who had experimented with schedule configurations. We did this through visitations, conversations with the pioneers who had gone before us, and by consulting the research (see Resources). From this, we prepared a rationale that was used to compel the conversations with our community of students, teachers, the district office personnel, and our Board of Education. Those benefits, as we imagined them before we made the change are as follows:

*The 4/4 Semester Plan offers students an opportunity to focus on fewer academic classes at a time. Academic classes are balanced between semesters, so that the student class load is distributed evenly. Students have more manageable work loads, with fewer tests, quizzes, and assignments to prepare for each day. Grades tend to improve.

*Class size is reduced. Each teacher teaches three classes each semester, or six classes each year instead of five. This adds ninety sections to our master schedule and reduces class size averages from a maximum of 35 to 29. Teacher/student relationships improve.

* Each teacher has fewer students per day. Teachers have an average of 87 students each day in three classes. instead of 175 students in five periods. They meet with these students for 90 minutes instead of 53 minutes. together, these are the most important factors in improving learning because they allow for more individualized instructions and feedback to students.

* Students have an opportunity to take a greater number and variety of elective course that the six period day allows.

*Daily student attendance has also shown improvement.

* Students who have failed a class have an early opportunity to retake it; thus, they can regain the graduation pace of their peers.

* The number of passing periods is reduced, creating a quieter, more relaxed environment

*It reduces the cost of textbooks, and makes better use of the school facility.

*Athletics is offered each day during fourth period which allows athletes daily practice time and eliminates the need to leave another for competitions.

*Some courses work better when they are offered for a full year.

The following courses are offered in alternating blocks, every other day for the full year.

1) A.P. classes -- because a.p. tests are given nationally by the college board in may.

2) Most science classes -- to make the best use of lab set-ups.

3) Performing Arts -- because of year-long performance schedules.

*Students who enter during the semester will have an entry plan designed for them based upon their current course schedule and their previous success in various subject areas. Because a number of courses are still on a year long schedule, counselors have more options for enrolling.

Getting ready

As we knew any change we made would be significant and would need to involve our entire constituent community, we began early to converse with our parents and to engage them in the research with us. Those earliest school visitations included parents, students, and two of our five Board members. Throughout the spring and fall of 1995, as our principal attended parent meetings, she shared with parents the current status of the schedule and our evolving rationale. This included monthly PTSA meetings, and special presentations for the Athletic Booster Club and the Choral and Instrumental Booster Clubs. During that fall, we hosted a series of Parent Forums. At the first, attended by about 300 parents, there was a forty-five minute overview held in our theater, followed by break out sessions, facilitated by BSTF members, of about thirty parents each. During these ninety minute sessions, which emulated the length of our proposed periods, parents asked clarifying questions and raised concerns about the changes we proposed. From these sessions, we gathered valuable insights and information that informed the conversations that the staff continued to have about our proposal. We hosted three of these Forums, the last of which was attended by six people. In addition, information went home to our existent parent community in the bimonthly Principal's Newsletter. To inform the parents of would-be Irvine High School parents, we hosted similar forums at both of our feeder middle schools.

One thing should be noted. We were a school that had always had a successful student population, and so many asked us. If it ain't broke, why fix it? Our response was, though we did well, we were certain that we could do better. Experience with the blended block has borne this out (see Measures of Success).

Students, too, needed to understand what we were considering. To explain to them the what of our proposal and to help them understand how it would affect them individually, we held an all school assembly. This was followed by a series of advisement (homeroom) exercises in which students translated their current schedules into our new configuration and then planned their schedules for the following year, given the blended block format.

What the research told us about

Staff Development in the spring of 1996 and Teacher Training Tuesdays

Measures of Success

Some helpful information

Special schedules:

Period Time:
0 7:00 - 7:55
Meeting A 7:30 - 8:10
1 8:15 - 9:45
Meeting B 9:05 - 9:45
Break 9:45 - 9:55
2 10:00 - 11:30
3 11:30 - 12:10
3 12:15 - 1:45
4 1:55 - 3:25

 

Extended Lunch/ Student Activity Schedule

Period Time:
0 7:00 - 7:55
1 8:00 - 9:30
Break 9:30 - 9:45
2 10:00 - 11:20
Lunch 11:20 - 12:10
3 12:15 - 1:45
4 1:55 - 3:25

 

Pep Rally Schedule

Period Time:
0 7:00 - 7:55
1 8:00 - 9:30
Pep Rally 9:35 - 9:55
2 10:00 - 11:30
Lunch 11:30 - 12:10
3 12:15 - 1:45
4 1:55 - 3:25

 

 

AM Advisement Schedule

 

Period Time
0 7:00 - 7:55
Advisement 8:00 - 8:10
1 8:15 - 9:45
Break 9:45 - 9:55
2 10:00 - 11:30
Lunch ll:30 - 12:10
3 12:15 - 1:45
4 1:55 - 3:25

 

Assembly Schedule with TA

 

Period Time
0 7:00 - 7:55
1 8:00 - 9:15
Advisement 9:20 - 9:30
Break 9:30 - 9:40
2A Assembly 9:45 - 10:45
2A Class 10:50 - 12:05
2B Class 9:45 - 11:00
2B Assembly 11:05 - 12:05
Lunch 12:05 - 12:45
3 12:50 - 1:55
4 2:05- 3:20

 

Assembly Schedule without TA

 

Period Time
0 7:00 - 7:55
1 8:00 - 9:15
Break 9:15 - 9:40
2A Assembly 9:45 - 10:45
2A Class 10:50 - 12:05
2B Class 9:45 - 11:00
2B Assembly 11:05 - 12:05
Lunch 12:05 - 12:45
3 12:50 - 1:55
4 2:05- 3:20

 

Minimum Day Schedule

 

Period Time
0 7:00 - 7:55
1 8:00 - 8:55
2 9:00- 9:55
Break 9:55 - 10:10
3 10:15 - 11:10
4 11:10 - 12:10

Back to School Night
Period Time
Meeting 6:45 - 7:00
TA 7:05 - 7:10
1A 7:15 - 7:25
1B 7:30 - 7:40
2A 7:45 - 7:55
2B 8:00 - 8:10
3A 8:15 - 8:25
3B 8:30 - 8:40
4A 8:45 - 8:55
4B 9:00 - 9:10