George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Beat the Clock: Getting Scheduling Under Control

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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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Karen Shores's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Developing an effective high school schedule can be challenging. It can be frustrating and bring one to the limit of one's patience; but it can also be enlightening and rewarding when done inclusively, logically, and with skill.

In trying to meet the needs of all subgroups of students, flexibility is a key concept. Yet there are finite resources that limit that flexibility such as staffing, space, funding and technology. The model chosen (block schedule, trimester, etc.) should be chosen based on the educational needs of the students, and always with an eye to the reality of limited resources. However, brainstorming sessions with representatives from all stakeholders can produce some creative solutions to perceived limited resources.

Susan's recommendation that the process be a shared decision-making process is a wise one. Board members, administrators, counselors, teachers, students, parents, vested community members, and union representatives all have a stake in the outcome, have valuable input, and all can erect roadblocks if not heard and satisfied with the product. There is always the temptation to "give in" to the demands of those with the loudest voices, the squeakiest wheels, but that temptation should be resisted in order to keep the focus on those we ultimately serve aEU" our students. The inclusive decision-making process goes far to silence the squeaks, as peer pressure and personal image are strong motivators for collaboration and compromise.

After the year of creative thinking, collaboration, decision-making, and product development, if done well a master schedule is a living foundation for the successful operation of educational programs aEU" it is something to be proud of, studied, and made better each year.

Milton Chen, GLEF's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Susan and others: can you share examples of schedules that allow longer periods for project learning? And are there examples of schedules that go beyond the 9-3, Mon thru Fri., 31 week traditional schedules?

Kenneth Bernstein's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are multiple ways of meeting the needs of students in larger high schools. While it can be beneficial to have the ability for students to maintain ongoing relationships with teachers cycling with the students, on the other hand that can deprive the student of the opportunity of experiencing a greater variety of teaching styles, even with the one content area.

The foregoing is but one example where I have some disagreement with Susan's proposals. Like many, my perceptions are shaped by my own experience.

Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD, where I am completing my 7th year as a social studies teacher, is a large school. We have had over 3,200, and currently have around 2,900 students. We do have some level of subdivision - we have called them academy programs, although at times the district has wanted us to use a different labelling system. They provide some ability for students to have a shared content beyond that minimally required for graduation, to have additional shared experiences such as research practicum, internship, field trips, etc. I will not attempt to describe the entire process in this limited posting.

In order to provide the flexibility to meet the needs of our extremely varied and diverse student body, which includes students admitted by competitive examination to our nationally known Science and Technology program, students who transfer in for one of 6 foreign languages or our string program, or who are hearing impaired and participate in our sign language program, or simply live in the neighborhood, we run an 8 period day, with an extra "zero period" run from 7:15 - 8:00 (regular classes start at 8:25). Each of us who teaches is responsible on a full schedule for 6 periods, but that may not represent 6 classes. We run a hybrid schedule. We have some year-long classes that run for a period a day for the entire year, and others which are two periods back to back for a semester. We also have a wide variety of semester length courses. In my Social Studies department we offer the three courses required for graduation - 9th grade American History, 10th grade government, and 11th Grade World History (the courses are required, the order and grade levels are up to the local school division). In each we offer honors classes as well as regular classes, and we also run multilevel classes for those students who have special needs. We also have a huge panoply of Advanced Placement courses, which in 10th and 11th can sometimes substitute for the required courses. We have US Government, World History, Economics (both macro and micro), Psychology, and US History. We help students prepare individually for Comparative Government and European History. In addition we run additional electives in Psychology, Social Issues, Practical Law, Criminal Justice, African-American History, Comparative Religion, and I have probably skipped a couple. Other departments are similar. As a resul of all of this, we have schoolwide something like 60 courses of which there is only section each.

In setting up our schedules, teachers are very involved with helping students select courses, including making recommendations for appropriate levels. So are parents, because for many courses the parent and student will sign a contract. The department chairs will work within their departments to balance student loads after students have committed to their schedule. Guidance counselors will ensure that students are meeting all graduation requirements in a timely fashion. And one person will then try to put all the pieces together. It is a daunting task.

We go through all of the difficulties this entails because it benefits our students. That is our primary goal. Others have come to see how we do things, our former principal published a journal article on our hybrid schedule, but so far as we know there is not yet another school willing to take on what we do. It places extra burdens on teachers and counselors, but it benefits the students. And it is an approach that is very different than that advocated by Susan in her posting. Which leads to the most important thing I can offer.

By this point no sentient being involved in education should ever advocate one way of doing things, either as the only way or even the best way. It may be an effective way, in the setting in which you practice it, but its effectiveness can be heavily dependent upon the demographics of your student population, the willingness of district-wide personnel to allow different approaches, and even the idoisyncracies of the faculty and staff. These may not be producible elsewhere.

This year I led a presentation at our state-wide teachers' conference on what made us a good high school. We tried to point out those things that might be somewhat transferrable, such as building a terrific relationship among school personnel, parents, and community, and those that are not (remember our six foreign languages?). As we share our ideas on education, we need to ahve enough humility to recognize that no matter how proud we are of the success of an approach with which we are involved, it is an example of a success, not a mandate to which all should subscribe.

I look forward to further discussion of educational issues here at SpiralNotebook. I do not know how often I can contribute, even as a mere commentor, as besides teaching - and coaching, and doing musical theater and serving as a class sponsor -- I regular write (blog) about education in a number of other fora. This is an important site, and I wish to offer it all the support I can. But here we educators largely talk to one another. In my other efforts I am trying to expand the conversation to those who make policy and those who may do little more than pay the taxes that make such policies possible.

Bill Elllis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"Creating Learning Communitiess" is a book composed online by a Coalition for Self-Learning. It proposed replacing public schools with "Cooperative Community Life-Long Learning Centers" (CCL-LLCs) owned and operative by small groups of autodicatic families. Following the 2001 publication fo the book members have taken on other real activities to promote the concept.
In 2006 we are discussing initiating a net of, by and for learning cooperatives. We welcome input from any one who is developing alternatives to the existing school system.

Georgette Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to give a 'Shout out' to Susan Tidyman and her blog about the restraints that the traditional public high school places on attempts to create change towards SLC's (Small Learning Communities). We must remember the struggle everyone goes through with change of any sort and trying to compare it to systemic change in the nations public school system, one can get overwhelmed, discouraged, and give up. I am the SLC Coordinator at Silverado High School, a large comprehensive high school in Victorville, CA. Silverado boasts close to 3900 students - 1500 of them are Freshmen. We have NOT boasted about our graduation class of 500-600 students. "What happens to these kids from 9th to 10th grade?" That is one reason we pursued SLC's for Silverado High School.
Of course, we faced ALL of the obstacles that Susan Tidyman noted in her blog, "Getting Scheduling Under Control". We could NOT throw in the towel. We just kept plugging along. We received valuable assistance through a small "College Going Culture" grant through CASN and UC Berkely. We were assisted by two "gurus" Miya Hayes Melish, and Alan Weisberg. I cannot tell you how important their assistance and encouragement were to our moving forward with SLC's.
This past school year Silverado noted the largest graduating class as well as the largest graduating class moving on to college/university. 100% of our AVID class were accepted to a UC program.
We have also seen our 10th and 11th grade class size grow. Students who explored careers throught the Freshman Seminar class and Career Choices curriculum made 10 year plans and applied to one of our seven career academies for 10-12 grade.
We have been invited, nation wide, to share our successes and strategies. Schools from around the nation are visiting our program in hopes of beginning an SLC program as ours.
In the midst of it all, we have faced the same scheduling struggles as well as other 'programs' which throw a road block our way. We continue to move forward, choosing not to 'cry' over the stumbling, but rather learn from them, find a solution and move ahead.
We have joined arms with community organizations and businesses to provide Problem Based Learning Experiences for our students. Students are eager to apply their state curricular standards to these rea-world problems and come up with a solution to present to the professionals in our community. These PBL experiences are a large factor in our national 'celebrity status'
I would highly encourage ALL junior, middle, and high schools to seriously consider SLC's. I would also highly encourage all higher education institutes to support these programs and collaborate with the teachers, administrators, and students involved. We have noted a trend of SLC students enrolling concurrently in college classes that deal with their career interest while in 11th and 12th grade. These students are very successful in these courses and are more likely to stay in college wth a head start after graduation. In fact, our community college is offering courses on our high school campus and using our high school teachers to teach them. Students are on our campus after school for sports, clubs, AND college classes!

Jennifer Kreisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Good morning!
I am a student at Walden University and this "blogging" stuff is new to me, but I thought I would give it a try. I was reading the scheduling information from Susan Tidyman, in regards to efforts to create small learning communities and personalize learning. Although I do not teach at the high school level, I have a few years of scheduling experience at the elementary level. A few years ago, our school moved to block scheduling and the scheduling duties were then passed down from the admistrators to a team of teachers in the building. The team consisted of one teacher from each special area (art, music, physical education, LMC, and foreign language), one classroom teacher to represent each grade level and a guidance counselor. The team meets at the end of the school year and develops the schedule for the following school year. We meet at the end of the year because it's not until that point that we know the specifics for next year, in terms of the number of classrooms, staffing, student placement, open enrollment, etc. This system of scheduling has been very effective; there is equal representation from each area and the schedule is built around what's best for student learning. The blocks allows for a solid one hour of uninterrupted instruction time for language arts and then teachers have the freedom to choose when they will instruct in the rest of the content areas. Once again, in blocks of uninterrupted hours. Specials are scheduled in as one hour blocks, with two special areas back to back. So far, all is going well with this particular type of schedule. It has allowed for team teaching in most of the content areas which is a great opportunity to work with colleagues and share ideas.

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