Administration & Leadership

8 Steps to Building an Elementary School Schedule

Building a school schedule can feel like assembling a jigsaw puzzle—these tips help the process go smoothly for administrators.

June 23, 2022
Dan Page Collection / The iSpot

A daily schedule is vital to a school functioning at its optimum level. The schedule, if done correctly, will ensure that the school day can meet the needs of all students. When I became the assistant principal of an elementary school, I felt overwhelmed when the school’s schedule became part of my duties. But after six years of constructing my school’s schedule, I have come up with a few steps that ensure the school day runs smoothly. An effective schedule serves the goals of the school, covers necessary courses, provides teachers the time they need, and meets the learning needs of students.

Steps to Building an Effective Schedule

1. The basics: I start creating the schedule over the summer. I look at the previous school year’s schedule and ask myself what worked and what didn’t work. As you construct your school’s schedule, start with the basics, imagine the schedule as being like a pyramid, and build up from a solid foundation. Here are some basic questions to ask:

  • How many periods per school day?
  • How many minutes for each period?
  • How many lunch periods?
  • What are the required courses by grade?
  • How many times a week or minutes do required courses meet?
  • Are there courses that require block scheduling?
  • What are school-system-wide requirements? 

2. Teacher needs: Once these questions are answered, make sure to take into account teacher contracts. For example, in New York City, every teacher must have a duty-free lunch and a preparation period.

I also ask teachers for feedback. If I am able to accommodate their requests, I do, but I am transparent with everyone that their class is a piece of the greater puzzle and not all requests will be accommodated. For instance, we have three lunch periods, and the coveted lunch period is second because it lands in the middle of the day. We assign that lunch period carefully, based on how quickly children eat and what other courses might be planned. Kindergarten eats lunch during the last lunch period, with a snack built in prior to their lunch. One would think that they should eat during the first period, but they tend to eat slowly, so if they are not finished, the teachers can stay with them in the cafeteria and not overlap with another lunch period.

3. Setting scheduling priorities and school goals: Based on end-of-year meetings with the district and school leadership, I gather the projected priorities and take those into account when planning. Each year, the school or district leaders will prioritize a specific goal or focus. One year, math was a district priority, so I rearranged the schedule so that every class had double-period math blocks in the morning twice a week. This scheduling change improved the scores on math assessments.

4. Recognize the needs of different grade bands: Schedules should be flexible in meeting the goals of specific grades. In my school, K–2 grades spend one period each day on a phonics program to help them learn how to read. Grades 3–5 don’t have a phonics period, so that extra period in their schedule becomes a writing skills course where teachers review basic grammar.

5. Making time for special need and programming: Students may need additional support provided by classroom teachers, including students with disabilities, students who need additional academic support, and English language learners. For example, I schedule one period a week for each teacher to pull students who are struggling to provide one-on-one support. Other administrators may create time in a teacher’s schedule for them to work individually with English language learners or other students needing individualized attention.

Special programming may also require shifting schedules. For example, we have contracted with a vendor to give STEM classes to our students for a span of about four weeks during the school year. Programming the classes during this time requires shifting courses. Another year, we were awarded an arts grant, so we adjusted the schedule so that each class was able to have art instruction. This kind of flexibility allows students to be exposed to exciting opportunities, while also ensuring that the core curriculum is taught.

6. System for covering teachers: Even the best-created schedule can fall into turmoil when teachers are absent. Setting aside money in the budget for substitute teachers is critical to ensuring that the school runs smoothly. Having a system in place for teachers and staff to report absences due to personal days, sickness, professional development, and leaves is important, but it is critical to have a system where learning continues even when a teacher is absent. Teachers at my school create lesson plans that the substitute teachers must teach in their absence.

7. Benefits of communicating the school schedule with parents: Finally, communicating with parents the courses and programs your school is offering is vital to the parent-school partnership. Communicating the content of the courses allows parents to assist when work is sent home.

8. Scheduling technology: There are many programs on the market for scheduling. I use Microsoft Excel, where I created formulas that generate the schedules. One year the drive I was using was corrupted and I lost the file, so make sure to back up!

The school schedule is a daunting and rather thankless task. I often think of it as a thousand-piece puzzle. It takes hours, maybe even days, to complete, but once it is finished and you step back, you can see the full picture of how each piece not only is vital to running the school but also helps to meet the learning needs of all students.

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  • Administration & Leadership
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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