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New high school schedule draws fire

SoVaNow.com / March 20, 2013
A revised high school class schedule won the backing Monday night of a divided Mecklenburg County School Board but drew fire from students, parents and others who fear the change will damage programs such as band and diminish math and elective courses at Bluestone and Park View.

The trustees voted 6-3 to switch to a four-period block schedule, eliminating opportunities for students at the high school level to take two semesters of band class during the year, allowing only one semester instead.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton, who sought the change, said the new block schedule is driven by research that shows high school students perform better when the school day begins later in the morning — one effect of the new schedule, under which classes at Bluestone and Park View would start each day at 8:45 a.m. The block schedule also sets aside longer classroom periods for core subjects such as English, science and history, although math classes would be shortened.

Another “main feature” of the revision, said Thornton, is the addition of common planning time for teachers in the morning. “This increase in planning and professional development time is critical as we continue to increase rigor in the classroom,” he said. Thornton also heralded the new schedule as a “change from status quo,” which for the first time gives teachers “an opportunity to learn and grow professionally in a collaborative effort with their colleagues.”

Yet three members of the School Board — Debra Smiley, Dora Garner and Glenn Edwards, who all voted no — were unmoved by Thornton’s arguments, and some speakers who turned out for the School Board meeting challenged Thornton for pushing through changes that could negatively impact students and teachers

“Don’t take away band!” was the emotional plea of Sam Hicks, a ninth grade student at Bluestone High School. His comment was echoed by other band students at both Park View and Bluestone, including Jalisa Fullwood, Bluestone band drum major and the school’s February Senior of the Month.

The emphasis on the band program arose on the same night the School Board recognized band teacher Ricky Allgood for leading the Bluestone program to the coveted honor of “All Virginia Band,” a first in school history. If allowed to stand, the new schedule would make it impossible for students to take band classes throughout the year, affecting the quality of the program, band supporters argued.

Another student, Park View student government president Alyx Powers, argued that the schedule change, contrary to Thornton’s assertions, would have a negative impact on students’ academic performance. In particular, she pointed to less time for math instruction, which she predicted would lead to sub-par teaching as teachers “rush to complete the lessons.

“If math scores are low on the SOL, it follows that they will also be low on the SAT,” Powers said.

Chastising Thornton and School Board trustees for proposing a schedule change “without concern for the students,” Powers further asserted the superintendent was acting over the reservations of teachers who stand to be adversely affected, but who are afraid to speak up.

“Teachers feel their jobs will be terminated if they disagree with you,” Powers said to Thornton.

In February, Thornton asked the School Board to consider several revisions to the high school schedule beginning with the 2013-14 school year. In grades nine through 12, students would arrive at 8:45 a.m. Their first block of classes would run from 9:05-10:45 a.m. The second block of classes would run from 10:50-11:40 a.m., the third from 11:45 a.m.-1:50 p.m., and the fourth and final block from 1:55-3:35 p.m.

Thornton argues the longer class periods offer several advantages: The schedule allows for more intensive instruction in core subjects such as history and science , it gives teachers more time to plan their lessons during the school day, and better prepares students for a “21st century” education.

His rationale for a later high school day is based on medical research showing “that secondary students actually need more sleep and should come to school later than elementary students,” said Thornton. He also suggested that parents could benefit from having older children at “home to assist in getting their younger siblings on the bus.”

Dr. Chris Mullins, whose daughter attends Bluestone High School and who attended the School Board meeting, countered that statistics from the Center for Disease Control and American Pediatric Association contradict Thornton’s claim that older children need more sleep than their younger counterparts. Instead, he said, younger children need almost three hours more sleep than teens each night.

Timothy Ittner, the parent of several students in the county system, took aim at Thornton’s comments concerning young bus riders. “You claimed having high school kids at home was good because they can help get the younger ones off the bus,” said Ittner. “This violates a policy that was just presented to parents requiring them to meet their child’s bus.”

The bulk of the opposition, however, centered on the impact of the new schedule on electives such as band. Mullins, for one, argued that neuroscience has established the positive impact of a strong music education program in the schools.

“As students play their instruments, they must adjust the tempo, tone, rhythm and force of play, and with marching, body movement. The brain is forced to deal with multiple things at once, learning multi-tasking,” he said.

Powers, the Park View student, brought up the county’s SOL pass rates in pressing the argument that shorter math classes are a bad idea.

“The average pass rate for math at the elementary level was 59 percent, at the middle school level 46 percent and at the high school level 55 percent,” she said. The proposed plan reduces the time allocated for teaching math despite the fact that these classes are not our strong points,” she said.

Trustees voted 6-3 in favor of the schedule change. Voting to support Thornton’s recommendation were Dale Sturdifen, Sandra Tanner, Thomas Bullock, Robert Puryear, Mary Hicks and Joan Wagstaff.

Garner, a former teacher who voted no, said she initially favored the new schedule. However, “I was reminded by a very smart young lady that the schools are there for the students, not the teachers. That is why I do not support the change.”

Edwards, too, said too many of his constituents were opposed to the new schedule, and

Thornton said he was not surprised by the opposition — “these decisions are never easy,” and pushed back against the notion, which has spread among students, that “band was being cancelled. That is not accurate. Students can still take a semester of band, they just can’t take two semesters.”

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Comments

This is a huge mistake. Your electives such as band, chorus, even foreign languages, etc. will be hurt because it forces students to choose less number of classes. Students and teachers cannot do an effective job and stay concentrated for 90 minutes at a time either. In areas such as Halifax, rarely is true teaching last for the whole period. This is just a way for the school system to build up more credit hours in dual enrollment classes. That in itself is another very questionable policy of dubious real value to the students in the long run.

Comments

"Research" from think tanks is part of what has gotten public schools (as well as American business) in the mess they're in.

'Nuff said.

Thornton strikes me as one of these people who never met a consultant they didn't like, no matter how hare-brained the consultant's plan turns out to be.

Comments

James Thornton has his own agenda. The first time he spoke with teachers, he stated that he was not concerned with SOL scores: "I can make numbers look any way I want." He continues to do so with his surveys. Sandra Tanner and Thornton state that 73% said that they wanted more planning time on a survey given several years ago. If this survey was given several years ago, it was given before the school board increased the teachers' required time in schools from 38 to 40 hours, before he increased high school block classes from 90 to 100 minutes (50 minutes longer than research and studies recommend for quality education and even adequate absorption of information), and before he reduced the school year for students from 180 days to 166 while increasing teacher days from 190 to 194.

Comments

Thornton has as an agenda to have the largest school system for dual enrollment credits. To do this block scheduling allows more credits to be earned in the same time period. This is far worse for the students but it looks good on paper. Just as has happened in Halifax, people will wake up and realize the harm he has done after he is gone. In the meantime the train wreck continues.


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