Professional Learning

Beat the Clock: Getting Scheduling Under Control

March 20, 2006

Efforts to create smaller learning communities that personalize education for young people and bring teachers together in teams are hindered by many of the traditional high school institutions: the bell schedule, the bus schedule, the cafeteria schedule, the football schedule, and the union contract's drive decisions. Unless students and teachers are scheduled together in a cohort of courses across two or three years, efforts to create and support student achievement in a smaller, family-like atmosphere fail.

During the past year, colleagues from the Career Academy Support Network (CASN) at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, have studied the scheduling issue. We interviewed educators from around the country to learn from those who have successfully scheduled academies and/or smaller learning communities. Our graduate student researched software.

We did not find the magic bullet software for scheduling, but we did learn a great deal and developed some guiding principles as well as a guide for improving the scheduling process. We also researched different bell schedules. Although we do not recommend one over another, we do encourage school staff to think about and explore all options and student opportunities when choosing a bell schedule.

Traditionally, class scheduling is done by one person at the school -- a counselor or administrator or registrar. Departments are involved in determining courses, but sections and assignments are usually put into place in isolation. The schedule is often teacher focused, not student focused. I can remember as an English teacher going into the counseling office at the end of the summer and moving some cards around on the "big board" so I could have a conference period right after lunch.

We are recommending guidelines that include the following:

  • a collaborative process with a team, including teachers, a counselor, an administrator (who can make final decisions), a classified staff member, and -- possibly -- a student
  • a yearlong process that begins when school starts with a public calendar of events and processes
  • an open scheduling process so everyone in the school shares in decisions regarding single and special courses
  • a clear focus on student needs
  • a commitment to cohort scheduling of students and teachers together
  • a commitment from the district to establish tentative teacher assignments in a timely manner.

Using the team approach to scheduling is a new idea for many high schools in which one person owns the scheduling process and controls which classes are taught, when, and by whom. But it works. Those schools we studied are successful because they have developed a collaborative process understood and accepted by all staff.

Looking at the process as a yearlong, ongoing process may also be a new idea, but the course schedule is so critical to the school, it ought to be part of an ongoing conversation about what is best for students. We also learned the importance of school district support for school staffing numbers.

The full CASN Scheduling Guide is now available at no cost.

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