The challenges of school scheduling

A recent post by Rick and Becky DuFour, long time advocates and authors of numerous books on professional learning communities (PLCs), raises the centrality of the school schedule and the importance of school purposes driving that schedule (thank you to reader JC, twitter: @jcutler22, for forwarding the post).

The DuFours challenge school leaders to see their schedule as a means to an end:

A school’s schedule should be regarded as a tool to further priorities rather than as an impediment to change. Our advice to educators is simple: Your schedule is not a sacred document. If your current schedule does not allow you to provide students with something as essential to their academic success as extra time and support for learning, you should change it!

Regular readers won’t be surprised that I couldn’t agree more. Having said this, however, scheduling is not that easy and many schools, particularly high schools where the challenge is greatest, do not have staff who are trained and/or capable of doing the job in an instrumental and purposeful way. I spent a year as master scheduler for a high school with 500+ students, I know first hand that excellent, purposeful scheduling is a profound creative design challenge.

At the heart of this challenge, there are a basically endless set of priorities that drive scheduling in many schools and at the same time, criteria for sorting these priorities is often completely lacking (which of course, is also an argument for clear and shared school purposes).

When I was a scheduler, I was part of several school leadership committees in which members argued at length about the details of scheduling priorities. Here are some examples of the priorities that were often decided by some particularly vocal teacher’s personal experience:

1) We were a school with block scheduling and also a vague popular desire to track students by at least reading level (not my own, but a fundamental principle of the schedule nonetheless). According to the team of counselors in charge of “selecting” classes, students were to be first organized by their graduation requirements into the classes they needed and then were reshuffled to whatever extent possible by (a) their reading levels as determined by English teachers and (b) although rarely feasible, their math levels as determined by the math teachers.

2) We were also a school, however, that was very committed to teachers meeting with each other. The structure that came to our young, growing high school from our more established middle school was daily grade-level teacher meetings. At the high school level, however, many teachers, for good or ill, cared more about having daily interactions with their curriculum groups than their age-level groups. Many if not most of the students we taught were taking classes across several grades anyway. Given the administration took care of a lot of business through the structure of the grade-level meeting, both forms of meetings were priorities.

3) In addition, there was a mandate that English language arts and math be “double blocked” in comparison with science a social studies (reflecting a national trend towards narrower curriculum, see Linda Darling-Hammond, 2004). In the previous scheduling paradigm, social studies and science teachers either saw the same students everyday for an hour and a half block for one semester, or they saw students every other day for the full year. In the schedule I eventually mapped out, both subject areas, who as a result taught students every day for 47 minutes, had half of their students for a “double block” labratory session, two 47 minute periods, every sixth day.

Here is the six-day schedule I created that year: high-school-schedule-9-2-04 – Final. As you will see if you download it, the priorities I outlined above reflected in the schedule design. The mixed block scheduling allows students to be organized for their requirements while still being largely tracked by at least perceived English language arts level. Teachers meet every day alternately in grade-level teams and in curriculum teams. Finally, science and social studies meet in double-blocked periods every 6th day, allowing teachers to hold regular laboratory classes.

As a footnote, the one of the hardest challenges in the scheduling design process was the fact that the cafeteria and the gymnasium were the same space. All students must be scheduled for lunch in the same space and a great number of students must also be scheduled for physical education (PE) in that space. In the schedule you can see my visual method of tracking the distribution of student sections in health, PE, and lunch.


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