4-period school day wins adherents

December 12, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Science teacher Ginny Fair has kept a note pad next to her bed since North Carroll High School switched to an innovative schedule of four 90-minute class periods a day.

"I find myself waking up in the middle of the night with ideas in my head, which I haven't done in years," the 22-year veteran said. "I was at a point where I was beginning to burn out. I think the change is positive."

Not everyone at North Carroll High is as enthusiastic as Ms. Fair, but most staff members and students interviewed at least preferred the new setup to the old one, in which students had seven 48-minute classes a day.

In education circles, the new concept is called the "four-mod day." "Mod" stands for module, which is a class period. Last year, one Maryland high school -- in Frederick -- was doing it. This year, at least six more are, with several others trying it in some subject areas.

At North Carroll, Principal Gregory Eckles can think of nothing other than the four-mod day to explain the huge jump in the number of students getting straight A's plus perfect attendance in the first grading period.

Usually 10 to 20 students last year would get the "Gold Card," an award each grading period for the students who ace report cards and miss no school.

This latest round, he had about 80 students.

"I think the programs are more concentrated, and there is more rigor," he said.

Dr. Eckles and other proponents -- students and teachers -- say the change:

* Helps students concentrate more because they only have four subjects a day instead of seven.

* Gives teachers fewer students to keep track of per semester, and therefore more time to get to know them and work with them.

* Allows students to take more courses -- eight a year instead of seven. Most academic classes last one semester. Shorter courses, such as physical education, that used to be a half-year are now a half-semester.

* Wastes less time for students in going from class to class.

* Allows for more innovative and flexible programs for advanced or slower students.

North Carroll teachers and students say they have now adjusted to the new schedule. Nearly all said time seems to fly, and the end of the day comes before anyone realizes what time it is.

Most students and teachers interviewed said they liked the four-mod day, but they often qualified their comments with tales of a few kinks.

Cheryl McFalls, a mother and former school board president, has twice thanked the board at public meetings for allowing North Carroll to try the idea.

Science teachers seem to like the longer period because it allows them time to finish lab work in one day and still discuss the results.

Several math teachers also said it allows students to learn more in class so that they aren't lost when they do their homework that night.

Unexpected benefit

English teacher Anne Bontekoe said an unexpected benefit is that students seem to do better in their worst subjects than before. She said there is something about having only one

semester of English and then a semester off.

"Kids are able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that's something we didn't have before," she said.

One of Ms. Bontekoe's classes is for freshmen at the lowest level of writing. She also teaches higher-level students and finds the 90-minute day works well for both.

She said she is not worried the students will lose their writing skills next semester when they are not taking English.

"Kids don't lose writing skills the way they might lose a foreign language or a musical skill if they don't use it," she said. "I know they're going to take science classes next semester, and they're going to write in science."

Two social studies teachers remain lukewarm to the idea, but say it hasn't been as bad as they had feared.

"I personally don't see anything wonderful, or anything tremendously bad, about 90 minutes," said Mark Bingham, who teaches history. "It's actually a whole lot better than I thought it would be."

A majority of teachers voted last winter to try the 90-minute periods, but Mr. Bingham was not among them.

"I thought it would be murderous getting through a class; the kids would be disruptive and unruly. But they're generally polite, well-mannered students," Mr. Bingham said.

"I don't think there is one magic number," he said. "Forty-five minutes wasn't good for some classes."

Lloyd Ford, another social studies teacher, also voted not to pursue the four-period day this year, not so much because he opposed the concept, but because he wanted the school to take more time to plan for it.

"It was not so much what goes on in the classroom with the students, but just ironing out the kinks in how the day would go," Mr. Ford said.

For example, he said, even if it takes only two days to change a student's schedule, missing two days of a course that is 90 minutes is more serious than two days of a shorter class. The rest of the students have moved further along.

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