Administration & Leadership

Improving Literacy Scores by Rethinking the Master Schedule

A school turned around flagging reading scores by setting aside dedicated time for students to read—and for teachers to plan.

June 2, 2023
seb_ra / iStock

One of my (Kristen’s) students, an 11th grader named Caleb, began the year reading on a third-grade level, proclaiming a distaste for books and reading in general. Imagine my delight when he accepted my recommendation of Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down, a gritty verse novel with a strong male protagonist. Over the course of the next week, Caleb sat at his desk, turning the pages—engrossed in the tale.

He finished, turned to me, and asked, “Do you have any other books like this one?” Caleb’s end-of-year reading assessments reflected a growth of two entire grade levels, a modest yet significant success.

In a recent analysis of our district’s reading data and statewide assessment results, we discovered that many students had lower-than-average literacy test scores; in fact, many of these same teenagers hadn’t read a single self-selected book the entire school year. We knew we needed to make administrative-level adjustments to help get these students on track with reading. The secret to our school turning around reading rates? Giving kids time to read and teachers time to plan.

Diagnosing the Problem

Two overlapping areas with strong potential for academic growth are often overlooked: Teachers need time to plan, assess, and collaborate, and students need more timely, intentional interventions where academic gaps exist. Carving out time in the master schedule to address these needs can lead to significant improvements in classrooms and ultimately throughout an entire school. 

Our leadership team realized that this population of students routinely missed our campus’s enrichment period due to scheduling conflicts. Students who needed to make up missing credits or who opted into vocational training at the nearby career center had no room in their class schedule to be “enriched.” The unintended irony of the scheduling situation was that students who desperately needed time to read and work on literacy skills didn’t have the opportunity to do so. Instead, our students who were enrolled in AP courses and read on a college level benefited from an entire class period to read, work on skills, and meet with teachers.

A second concern was the lack of time that educators had for identifying struggling students and for subsequently developing effective, individualized intervention strategies. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many students were already testing two years behind in core subjects. Math teachers reported spending the majority of class time reviewing basic skills. English teachers noted that students constantly struggled to organize their thoughts. Reading nonfiction texts (a necessary skill across the entire secondary curriculum) seemed to many students like a mountain too steep to climb. Writing in response to those texts was even worse. And in-class remediation simply added the complication of time lost to acquire new skills. 

Finally, the existing schedule was a hodgepodge of planning periods, and a divided lunch schedule ensured that several days might pass before teachers with shared subjects would cross paths. If teachers wanted to collaborate, their only option was before or after school. And since many faculty members also were club sponsors or coached teams, their responsibilities negated even that option. 

Planning for Change

Over shared meals and emails, our school’s teacher leaders began imagining effective revision of a master schedule. We knew that struggling students deserved time to read self-selected books, receive direct instruction from highly effective teachers, and recoup skills lost during the pandemic. After the team collaborated for several weeks, we drafted a sample of the master schedule and approached our administrators with our concerns and our solutions. As with any major change in the scheduling, subsequent discussions involved counselors, teachers, coaches, and students.  

Ultimately, we decided to rework the master schedule so that third period became an enrichment class for all students, providing the opportunity for uninterrupted reading as well as access to tutoring, intervention, and remediation as needed. These 45 minutes, an island of calm in an otherwise hectic school day, allow teachers and students alike to pause and read and think.

Enrichment is exactly that: a moment to enrich the lives of the entire school community, totally set aside from all other content areas and athletics, and to offer a predictable pocket of time to close achievement gaps. The 15 or so students assigned to each teacher loop from their sophomore to their senior year; the three-year relationship between teachers and students strengthens school culture far beyond the improvement of reading skills.

On a practical note, the implementation of the enrichment period means that after a schoolwide 20 minutes of reading, teachers have the remaining 25 minutes of third period to work with each other or with struggling students. A simple system of combining students into classrooms—through a paired network of teachers established at the start of the school year—provides a quick solution when educators need to meet.

In one particular instance, the special education literacy teacher and I needed to discuss a shared student, one whose failing grades and lack of progress concerned us both. We both sent our enrichment students to neighboring classrooms and used the remaining time to share data, create a plan, and visit with the student privately. These types of informal gatherings quickly became the norm as teachers pulled in specific groups of students to address specific needs or combine their enrichment groups as teaching teams met.

The Results 

Under the revised master schedule, now every teacher in the building has an opportunity to work with individual students while the rest of the class reads. Whereas before nearly 40 percent of students had scheduling conflicts that interfered with the enrichment period, all students now have that built into their schedules. Not only is this time rigorously guarded against any scheduling anomalies, but also it’s kept free from other meetings, announcements, assemblies, and other interruptions. 

This mutually shared enrichment period also puts a heavy emphasis on the importance of reading. It offers an opportunity to talk about books, characters, conflicts, and resolutions. Students and teachers alike can offer book talks, make recommendations, and discuss unifying themes across genres. Teachers can share personal book selections, post social media tweets from favorite authors, and generally use books to deepen relationships with students. Collaboration between invested parties can result in what Olympia Della Flora calls “small changes [that] can make huge differences” in students’ academic participation. 

One of my greatest joys this year was overhearing a conversation between Kennedy and Whitney, two of my AP English Language and Composition students, as they gushed about their favorite memoirs, a genre they’d never explored before I recommended Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle to them. They discussed titles like Educated and Born a Crime, books that they now encouraged their peers to read. Without a devoted time to read and to discuss books, these may have never had a chance to touch readers’ lives.

Because our teacher leaders had their finger on the pulse of our students’ assessments and their specific needs, we were able to provide teachers and students with a solution that could help make reading a priority on our campus. Arguably, small school districts like Pottsville have more flexibility to shift the master schedule—working with 400 students is far simpler than, say, 4,000—but the general principle remains: The best educators are those who name the problem and find the solution. For our entire student population (the future doctor, welder, or truck driver) to have an equal opportunity for academic success, we needed to master the master schedule.  

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  • Administration & Leadership
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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