Despite misgivings about students losing instructional time for math and other core subjects, Mountain View Whisman school board members agreed to make sweeping changes to middle school class schedules in order to give all students -- even those with special needs -- an elective period.
Under the new proposal, which a majority of trustees favored at the Jan. 4 board meeting, students at Crittenden and Graham middle schools would have eight classes with a six-period schedule each day. That means students would attend each class four days a week, according to a staff report.
The driving force behind the decision is that students who need remedial help, including English language development and instructional support for students with disabilities, often had to cede their elective period in middle school, missing out on everything from music and art to robotics and foreign languages. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said a litmus test for any new schedule should be the opportunity for students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and language development classes to take electives.
The change does away with the current seven-period daily schedule that has two periods devoted for math, which district officials originally saw as a necessary step to prepare students for the new Common Core state standards in the 2014-15 school year. The standards shifted the ground beneath the feet of older students who weren't familiar with Common Core, and so-called "double block math" served as a stop-gap measure to bring them up to speed, Rudolph said.
The extra math period stuck around during the adoption of the Teach to One digital math program in fall 2016 before it was abruptly dropped last year, and the schedule remains in place even today.
Some parents raised concerns that the sweeping changes to the schedule sacrificed too much in order to give students more time for electives, arguing that reduced time for math and other core academic subjects could lower test scores, ramp up homework and exacerbate the achievement gap at the middle schools.
The changes would also reduce time for morning and lunch breaks as well as passing periods. On Mondays, students would start later in the morning and attend all eight classes for 32-minute periods. The rest of the week, they would attend six of their eight classes per day on a "cascading" schedule. On those days, classes would be 58 minutes each, with slim three-minute passing periods in between.
Alex Klaiber, a Crittenden parent, encouraged board members to reject the proposal, which he said lops off 10 percent of the valuable time devoted to core subjects each week on top of losing the double math period. He said it feels like the district is heading in the wrong direction, and could end up hurting achievement among the lower-performing students the new schedule is intended to support.
Klaiber also questioned the parent outreach that the district conducted, which he argued failed to show the pros and cons of losing time committed to academic subjects.
"I fear if you do this without more forthright consultation with the public, you do face serious backlash," he said.
But other parents threw their support behind the new schedule. Graham parent Agnes Berthillier called the proposal an important step to ensuring all students have the option to explore extracurricular activities. She said her children fall under the umbrella of English learner and special education, and that they seemed happy with the idea of dropping double math and having more latitude in choosing their schedule.
"I'm really glad to see this moving forward," Berthillier said.
Board members backed the eight-period plan, dubbed the "cascading schedule because two classes are rotated out each day, following the recommendations of the Middle School Schedule Task Force, middle school administrators and district office staff. Board member Ellen Wheeler said she largely supported strong math instruction at the middle schools and wants to lay the groundwork for students to reach Algebra I by seventh grade, but favors flexibility for students and families to make that call rather than enforce a double block math period for all.
Board president Laura Blakely said the school district already exceeds mandatory state-required minutes for core academic subjects, and that she wasn't too worried about the prospect of teachers struggling to cram all of the course content into the new schedule.
"I do think our staff has been working hard with teachers on professional development," she said. "Staff will be able to use those minutes effectively to teach the appropriate content."
The only hold-out was board member Greg Coladonato, who said the district should seriously consider other alternatives before adopting the cascading schedule. Simply turning the second period of math into an optional period, where students could opt out and use the time for an elective, might be a better way to address the parent concerns while also satisfying the goal of providing electives for all students.
Rudolph cautioned that he would need to consult with the math departments at both schools as well as special education staff on whether stripping away the second period of math in the current schedule would take away too much instructional time for high-needs students, particularly English learners with IEPs.
Although the goal of the cascading schedule was to reach a greater level of equity among all students, Graham teacher and task force member Edgar Gomez said the recommendation doesn't necessarily solve the entire problem. The new schedule means students who need remedial support and extra instructional time are stuck with one elective, while higher-achieving students under the new schedule will have access to two or even three elective classes throughout the day.
"If we're trying to eliminate the haves and the have-nots, the cascading schedule just perpetuates that," Gomez said. "We're giving more to certain students."
Board member Tamara Wilson said she believes middle school electives are important for all students at a critical point in social-emotional development, and while not everyone will have access to two electives, she said it's a strong compromise and the best option on the table right now.
"We cannot make a perfectly equitable system," she said. "It's a good goal, it's a lofty goal, I've rarely seen it accomplished. We are doing our best, and I think this current schedule gets as close as we're going to get to it at this time."