Block Scheduling: Is Your School Next?

When 20,000 high school students in Wake County go back to school Aug. 11, they will be trying out the new block class schedule. And students and educators in Durham and Orange counties will be watching and waiting to see how the new program works in the neighboring county.

Block scheduling is used in 87 percent of the state’s public high schools, including one Durham high school but none in Orange County or Chapel Hill-Carrboro. Until this coming school year, four of Wake County’s high schools were on the block schedule.

Instead of taking six year-long courses that meet in classes of 45-55 minutes, those on the block schedule take four courses each semester in 85-90 minute class periods – eight classes in all each year. Most courses will be completed in one semester instead of the entire school year.

With the block schedule, students have more opportunities to take electives or retake failed courses needed to graduate, school officials say.

In October, 2002, the Wake County school board voted to switch the remaining 11 non-magnet high schools to the block schedule. Students have 32 credit opportunities available to them in the 4×4 block schedule instead of 24 in the six-period day.

“The biggest reason for the switch in Wake County is the increased opportunities for students,” said Steve Hauge, senior director of high school programs for the county. “The requirements for a diploma in North Carolina also have increased which can create challenges for students to graduate within four years.”

Beginning this fall, students will be required to take four math courses for graduation instead of three. They also will be required to take foreign language courses. Also with the 2003-003 school year, the requirements for the North Carolina Academic Scholars Program have increased. The minimum number of credits has increased from 22 to 24, leaving no margin for error in decision-making by the student on the six-period day, according to educators.

In 2001, the state required students to pick one of four “career pathways,” each with its own set of required classes, to get 20 credits for a high school diploma. School officials have said that students who change pathways or fail courses might not have enough time in a six-period schedule to graduate in four years. The new federal No Child Left Behind Act evaluates high schools on how many students graduate in four years.

The block schedule will allow students to take more electives. In theory, students could take two academic courses and two electives each semester. Actual scheduling of the classes may not result in this division for all students.

The decision to switch to the new schedule in Wake County has received mixed reviews. Parents and students wonder how teachers used to traditional 55-minute classes will be able to keep students interested for 90 minutes at a time. There also is concern over how Advanced Placements and other high-level classes will work as courses that last a semester instead of a year. The possibility of having semesters off between sequencing classes such as foreign language and math also is a concern.

Critics also say that the block schedule only seems to provide longer instructional time, while actually cutting instructional time by 30 hours when compared to the traditional yearlong class schedule.

Pam Bello, director of secondary, career and technical education with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, is serving on the system’s high school reform committee. The 20-member panel is developing and prioritizing recommendations to improve the system’s two high schools – Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill.

In February, the group gave a preliminary report. Among the areas that the committee is investigating are personalizing the high school experience so that teachers and students get to know each other better, varying methods of instruction and using time and organization in a more flexible manner.

The goals for the panel are to close the achievement gap, increase student engagement, reduce the dropout rate, prepare students to compete successfully after graduation and develop the whole child.

“We are concerned that high school students do not have a lot of choices with the six-period schedule,” she said. “From an online survey and focus groups, we have learned that students would like more variety in their courses. It is all about choice.”

Bello said she and other members of the reform committee are eager to see how the block scheduling program works in Wake County.

“We are watching Wake County with great interest,” she said.

Carolyn White, executive director of secondary education with the Durham Public School System, also is watching Wake’s experiences with block scheduling. Durham has six high schools. Only Southern High School has the 4×4 block schedule.

“Research has shown block scheduling is a great opportunity to give students exposure to a variety of classes,” White said. “But if it is not done in a way that is meaningful, the students can actually lose ground. We just aren’t there yet to give it a try.”

Teachers need special training to be able to properly use the full 90-minute class period, she said. There has to be some lecture, some opportunities for discovery, some problem-solving and some writing projects combined in the longer class time.