More than 1,500 students in the Mountain View Whisman School District could see their schedules radically change next year, as the district wraps up its quest to offer electives to all middle school students, including those with special needs.
District staff, including teachers and principals at Crittenden and Graham middle schools, have been quietly meeting since fall 2016 to tinker with the standard seven-period school day. While the options have ranged from modest to sweeping changes, the core goal of the task force is to inject flexibility into the schedule so students with disabilities and students learning English still have room for an elective class.
The critical flaw in the current schedule is that the students with special needs are forced to concede their elective period to remedial support classes, whether in English language development or special education support. Parents and district staff have argued that this is an unfair approach that shortchanges students of the only creative outlet they have during the school day.
One of the proposals still on the table is to switch to an eight-period block schedule that divides up classes by holding four on alternating days. Under that plan, students would have 87- and 92-minute classes, which some board members say could benefit all students attending Graham and Crittenden. Not only would kids only have to worry about homework for four classes each night, but students without the need for a support period would have the freedom to sign up for two elective classes.
At the Nov. 16 board meeting, board member Ellen Wheeler said she favored the eight-period model because it could bring stress levels down a notch for students who face increasing academic pressure in middle school. She said some parents are comparing the proposal to what students typically see in college, with half of the classes taking place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the other half held on Tuesday and Thursday.
For teachers, a block schedule would be a mixed bag, said Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur. They would get a much-needed extra period for preparation during the day, but having to teach classes every other day for an extended period of time would upend the familiar 48-minute daily lesson plans and teaching strategies. At a Nov. 2 board meeting, Baur said the shake-up would likely require more professional development to bring teachers up to speed.
"We would need to support our teachers in how to teach for longer periods of time and how you break that up and make it interesting," she said.
District staff admitted that the planned schedule changes have not been widely publicized or communicated to families. In late September -- during the tail-end of the task force process -- the district finally asked for feedback from parents and students.
The results were mixed, to say the least. Parents said they wanted more electives to focus on STEM, coding, programming, engineering, fine arts and foreign languages. Students, on the other hand, overwhelmingly favored home economics classes, like cooking and baking, extended break periods and athletics.
Parents griped about lack of communication from the district office, while students complained about lugging around heavy backpacks and spending too much time on homework.
Where the divergent priorities met, however, was over the start time of school. Both parents and students said middle school ought to start later than 7:50 a.m. at Graham and 7:55 a.m. at Crittenden so that kids have more time to sleep. Parents and students also agreed that more time for electives and a more diverse menu of elective classes should also be a top priority for the task force.
The task force was originally expected to make a final recommendation to the board on Dec. 7 to either adopt the eight-period day or a make more conservative modifications to the current seven-period day by dumping the current double math period to make room for an elective. But the recommendation is expected to be pushed back to Jan. 4, according to district spokeswoman Shelly Hausman.
District staff could not say how much either option would cost or how many new teachers would need to be hired.
Despite the delays, the new schedules are expected to be in place for the 2018-19 school year. Baur said whatever the task force recommends, it's paramount that teachers and support staff have room to either accelerate students or offer remedial support on core subjects like math, and that ambitious students should always have a path to take geometry in eighth grade. She also reminded the board that no matter what schedule they approve, not everyone is going to be thrilled with the result.
"We are trying create a schedule for 1,600 kids and families," she said. "And all those 1,600 kids have a wide range of needs. We want to make the best choice, but we know that we may not make everyone happy."