Paper school schedule and pencil

Making a Flexible Schedule a Reality

Thursday, August 20, 2015

So, is your current high school schedule a little bit like a Twinkie? The last post looked at the current school system and it’s stale aging process.  But let’s look on the bright side. It’s not all bad, and many schools have made progressive changes. Give in to the positive peer pressure. What are other schools doing? How do you get there from here?

A Flexible Schedule and the Advisory Block

Even if a school would like to change their schedule, students still need to meet a credit requirement and this will take a certain amount of time.  For most schools, time can’t be entirely cut out of the equation, and neither can grades. So how can you implement a personalized, competency-based program? By scheduling an extra period, some schools have made this gradual shift. Often called an advisory block, or in some schools, an intervention or flex block, this time period allows students to receive the extra attention they need.

How does this work? This time period, scheduled right into the school day, usually assigns a specified group of students to a teacher. These students can receive extra help for subjects that they’re struggling in, allowing them to catch up or meet competency requirements. Or, this time period could allow students to pursue an enrichment opportunity, maybe a time to compose music or learn a new sport. There are a lot of possibilities for this block, and a lot of variations in what it’s being used for.  

But again, the question is how? How can you add a program like this to your school? And how can you handle the possible complications this could add to your schedule?

Looking back to that vintage ASCD article mentioned previously, Robert N. Bush tells us that we need two things. It needs to be determined how the schedule will be laid out, and then, how technology may be applied to make that schedule work.

So. How do you change your schedule? Let’s take a look at what other schools are doing.

The Schedule Shift

Some schools are completely tossing out their current schedule and starting from scratch. You’ve heard of edtech startups, but there are brandy-new school startups out there as well. One of the most talked about schools is AltSchool, a San Francisco based personalized-learning giant. Pricey but revolutionary, it provides what so many educators and parents are crying out for. With “micro” classes within a class, students receive more attention, and each is assigned a personalized learning plan. So far, it’s been met with enthusiasm and good results.

But of course, not everyone has access to schools like this. What about the parents who want five star education for their kids, but don’t have the money or resources to send them to a specialized school? How do public schools make the shift?  For some, it’s been by making gradual adjustments; others have gone through a complete upheaval, banishing previous grade systems. Olympus Academy in NYC has done this; when students complete their work and meet a competency level, they move on. Teachers use online an curriculum, so much of the learning is student driven, and students are accountable for their learning outcome. Getting an ‘F’ simply doesn’t cut it.

Recently, the state of New Hampshire put their competency-based policy into action, creating an actual learning model for the state, crushing the time-based Carnegie units.  How have they begun this upheaval? Let’s take a look at two NH high schools and how they have created a more flexible schedule (read more about competency-based ed in NH here).

Consider Sanborn Regional High School. Trying to implement a competency-based model while maintaining a steady schedule, they’ve managed to create a more flexible schedule that works for their students. By adding alternating “focused learning time” (FLT) and advisory blocks during the week they have created a sense of community with an emphasis on teamwork, student engagement and positive thinking. FLT offers students interventions, extensions for class work, or enrichment opportunities. The advisory period allows for students to meet in small groups with advisors to connect, communicate, and instill Sanborn’s core values.

Conval High School has taken another approach. Using a TASC (Teachers in Academic Support Centers) program, they have scheduled in intervention blocks. These blocks allow opportunities for relearning, advising, and student enrichment.  TASC bring together teachers, administrators, really the entire staff, to help students get the more personalized care that they need. Basically, by increasing communication, staff can help each other help students. School culture is improved, and students don't get left out.

The Tech

Even in the 60s, revolutionaries in education saw emerging technology as a portal to better learning. What saith Robert N. Bush in “The Problem of a Flexible Schedule” from 1961?

“The possibility of using automation in putting the pieces of the high school schedule together needs to be explored. Machines and other fruits of modern technology have performed miracles in lifting burdens from the backs of men in all walks of life. Why should not such technological developments also be used to lighten one of the most burdensome, time consuming of all tasks in the operation of a high school, the making of the schedule?”

Ah, the fruits of modern technology. There’s a lot of shiny new tech and starry-eyed startups out there reaching out to try and make personalized learning a reality. We have access to more and more every day, to the point where the choices may be overwhelming. If the fruits of modern tech in the 60s was like your local, small-town farm stand, today’s tech market is the produce section at Whole Foods.  There are sooo many options! Nonetheless, the right kind of tech is essential. How can technology help reform the traditional schedule? Let’s hear once more from Robert N. Bush:

 “The added complexities of fitting all pieces together in a truly flexible schedule will require the use of the storing capacities of out largest known computers.”

Think about this.  Say a high school wanted to change their current schedule, perhaps one that hasn’t changed much for decades. Say this high school has 1,500 students. That’s a lot of students, a lot of learning needs, and not to mention, a lot of different schedules. How can these schedules be swiftly rearranged? How can it be ensured that students are going where they need to go? How can they be scheduled for what they really need? Now more than ever, we have the technology at our fingertips to do this. We don’t have to use a massive, cryptic behemoth of a computer that would have been required in the 60s. Schools now are stocked with laptops, and the majority of teachers and students have mobile phones that are basically pocket-size, multitasking computers. Instead of myriads of paper hall passes and printed schedules, it’s certainly feasible that these issues could be handled with current software.

Added to that, there are so many opportunities opened up by online learning to increase flexibility; and now, more than ever, students, teachers, and other schools can connect by means of social media. Technology is a tool, but it's becoming more than that. It's a platform on which our society is building its future. It's time to catch up, and keep up.

What Are the Results?

Schools that have made these schedule adjustments, many of them utilizing technology for scheduling purposes, have noted less dropouts and better achievement overall. Students and teachers are drawn together in smaller groups, and as a result, a positive sense of community and belonging is fostered.

These schools are only a few of the growing number out there that are working hard to provide more personalized learning for their students. While they may each be taking a slightly different approach, it’s clear that progress is being made. Scheduling in just a bit of time for more personalized instruction is a small step towards creating a flexible schedule. It may not solve all of the problems of the traditional system, but it is a feasible first step for many schools.  Having time IN the school day for kids to receive extra help or enrichment gives students needed attention. It allows them to grow and become better learners, better citizens. It’s possible, it just requires a little more work. Aren’t your students worth it?