High school block schedule working, district says

Some statistics based only on freshmen

Highlands Ranch High School teacher Angela Mills helps freshman Ivanna Akhverdian Sept. 25 in the math computer lab. Photo by Courtney Kuhlen | ckuhlen@ourcoloradonews.com
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Douglas County School District leaders say they have statistics to prove that the new high-school block schedule — often criticized for early dismissals and 90-minute off-periods — is working.

However, much of the data used to support that conclusion is based only on freshmen — who are not allowed to leave school during the day and do not have off-periods.

Dan McMinimee, assistant superintendent of secondary education, said during a May 21 presentation to the Douglas County School Board that district-wide studies show the change to a block schedule succeeded in driving down class sizes with minimal impact to teachers’ planning time and student load — all while student achievement stayed high.

Surveys show most students like the new schedule, which expanded most classes to 90 minutes each, as well as off-periods common to juniors and seniors. Those whose day ends with an off-period leave school at 12:30 instead of 2:50 p.m.

The only survey of teachers, conducted at Chaparral High School, showed only 31 percent like the block format; 47 percent don’t; and 25 percent were undecided.

To accommodate student demands while decreasing class sizes, all high school teachers taught an extra class under the new 6-of-8 schedule.

District-wide, class sizes dropped an average of nearly 3½ students, from just under 29 to a little over 25, according to McMinimee.

Despite the additional class each teacher added, their overall increase in student load per semester was less than four students, he said.

Parent Laura Mutton isn’t convinced. The president of Strong Schools Coalition — a parent-led group often critical of the district — and parent of a Mountain Vista High School student said she’s seeing something different.

“I think they’re playing with what they’re showing in terms of the data,” she said. “When I was looking at the high school teachers my son has, (the new schedule) increased almost all their loads by 20 or 30 students.”

Students lost some instructional time, McMinimee said, with a district-wide average reduction of about 10 hours per credit. In 2011-12, students received just under 135 hours of teaching time per credit; in 2012-13, that number shifted down to slightly more than 124 hours.

Using statistics derived solely from freshmen, the district also compared attendance and grade data for the past two years, finding “overall good news,” according to Director of High School Education Steve Johnson.

Freshmen grades didn’t change significantly under the block schedule.

“The new schedule didn’t result in this huge boom in terms of grades,” Johnson said. “On the other hand, it didn’t show any real detrimental effect. I don’t think these are statistically significant.”

Because freshmen don’t have off-periods, Mutton said a freshmen-only study doesn’t provide significant data on many issues. Many parents have concerns about upperclassmen’s long free periods and resulting early dismissals.

“Off-periods — that’s the question that’s on everybody’s mind,” said Mutton, who said she believes the district chose statistical information that was “safe” and “positive.”

With small changes, the high schools plan to continue the 6-of-8 schedule in the coming academic year, McMinimee said.

“We’re very proud of this,” he said of the change, specifically noting the drop in class sizes. “We know this has had a direct impact on students. They’re no longer having to sit on the floor. They’re no longer anonymous.”

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