High schools weigh switch to longer class periods

December 09, 1992|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Let's say your high school laboratory assignment is to measure the energy involved in melting an ice cube. But the bell rings before your ice cube melts.

Or in chemistry class, you knock over a beaker and have to start all over again, and the bell rings before your new mixture makes its way through a filter.

And just when the discussion on the federal deficit in economics class gets going and even the shy student is talking, the loud electronic tone over the intercom signals the end of the 45-minute "mod," or class period.

These are just three reasons why several Carroll County educators are advocating a move to longer and fewer class periods in a day. Three high schools are considering a change by next September.

"We're still on the schedule we sent kids to high school with 50 years ago," said Peter Litchka, social studies chairman at North Carroll High School. "Everything else has changed, yet we're still saying to kids, 'Go to school for seven [periods] a day for 45 minutes each.' "

North Carroll High School is the furthest along in its process, and Principal Gregory Eckles will pitch a specific plan to the superintendent a week from today, after more input from teachers and parents.

The proposal so far from a committee of teachers is to have students take four classes in the first semester, spending twice as much time in each class as they would now. The second semester, they will take another four classes, again for 90 minutes each.

However, Dr. Eckles emphasized that the proposal could change before Tuesday, by which time the School Improvement Team and the faculty will have more chance to comment.

For example, another version of the 90-minute class period would alternate days throughout the whole year. Each class would meet every other day for 90 minutes, instead of every day for 45 minutes.

Although there is some apprehension about changing the schedule and retraining teachers to use different approaches, proponents say the benefits will be worth the trouble.

"That's part of change," Mr. Litchka said. But he said teachers with whom he talked at other schools following this trend all said they would never go back to 45-minute classes.

Dr. Eckles said that once he and Superintendent R. Edward Shilling decide whether to pursue the 90-minute classes, and decide how to go about it, he will have a committee work on the mechanics, including teacher training.

He said he thinks the teacher training can be done within the existing budget.

"You really can't say how people are going to like it until it happens," said Lawrence Ferguson, science department chairman at Westminster High School and chairman of the Restructuring Committee there.

Some version of the 90-minute class is very likely to happen, if not by next September, then by September 1994, said Westminster High Principal Sherri-Le Bream. The question will be just how the new schedule will be laid out.

The "mods," short for modules, are now 45 minutes long, and students have seven of them a day, plus lunch.

Westminster, North Carroll and South Carroll high schools are keeping a close eye on Frederick's Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, which began a schedule this year using the semester plan that North Carroll High is considering.

Three teachers, one from each of the Carroll high schools exploring the idea, also traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., three weeks ago to spend two days observing the schools that pioneered the idea about four years ago. Their expenses were paid by proceeds from the snack and soda vending machines in each school, at a cost of about $600 a teacher, Mr. Litchka said.

"We just felt you need to see schools where they've been doing this for several years, and they just had a good track record," Mrs. Bream said.

Another teacher from Westminster visited a school in Richmond, Va., and several Carroll principals and teachers have visited Thomas Johnson High.

The 90-minute periods would do much more than give longer time for teachers and students to focus on a concept or project, Mrs. Bream said. The new schedule would also give teachers more of an opportunity to do collaborative planning, because it would be more likely their free planning periods would coincide with those of other teachers.

In a school such as Westminster High, with 2,100 students, the longer periods would give teachers and students more time for individual attention, Mrs. Bream and Mr. Ferguson agreed.

Mr. Litchka said he prefers the semester schedule over the alternating days, because for nine weeks teachers have a smaller group of students to focus on.

AWith alternating days, he said, teachers still would have to keep track of an average 150 students in six or seven class sections.

"While we were in Colorado, a principal said you almost defeat the whole purpose of this," Mr. Litchka said.

"There seems to be a calming effect at the schools that did this," Mrs. Bream said. "There isn't the hubbub, the rushing between classes. Most of the major problems we do have are at class changes, when you have 2,100 kids in the halls."

Mr. Ferguson sees the longer periods as a better use of time. It will mean less time spent on roll call and reviewing what was discussed the day before.

"In 90 minutes over two days, you probably teach only about 60 minutes," he said.

While change might seem risky, Mr. Ferguson said, it leads to growth.

"I'm willing to try anything. If it doesn't work, I try something else. I've been teaching for 25 years, and I'm still changing the way I teach."

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