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Block scheduling debate may not be over

By Staff | Apr 16, 2020

An email sent to high school families last week has some students and parents upset about a proposed change to convert block scheduling to a seven-period day that’s 15 minutes longer.

The School District of Lee County, according to its website, recommends that the change be implemented at 13 of its 15 high schools, with the exception of Dunbar and East Lee County high schools which should implement a “five-by-five” class schedule increasing their days to seven hours and 21 minutes.

But the shift from block scheduling may not be a done deal — while school officials say how the day is structured is the purview of the principals, school board members approve bell times — and not all are onboard with the change or how it was announced to parents.

According to a letter sent to Island Coast High School families, “Island Coast High School will move to a 6 hour 45 minute day for the 2020-21 school year to put students on a more even academic playing field. In addition, we will be instituting a seven-period day (49 minutes per class), rather than the four by four block, starting in the fall. Adding 15 minutes and moving to a seven-period day will increase teacher/student contact time from 56 percent to 65 percent. It will add an additional 1,260 minutes of instruction per class, or the equivalent of 26 instructional days.”

“The schedule changes came as a shock to many students,” said Cape Coral High School student Melanie Pena, who also is the Seahawk’s Eye editor-in-chief. “The Seahawk’s Eye Instagram posted the news and many of the comments on the post were negative and disappointed. I thought the changes and discussions about the changes would be put on hold in order to discuss more prominent matters, such as our current coronavirus crisis, so I wasn’t expecting the announcement. I don’t see any perks to the changes.”

The notice also came as something of a shock to some school board members.

School Board Chair Mary Fischer said while the elected board does not have to approve Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins’ changes of the schedule, the board does have to approve changes in bell times.

“I will not approve it,” she said in a telephone message. “This is not good timing. That’s why I wanted the conversation to continue because the timing is poor and we have had hundreds of people email, call and text against this and there are petitions also.”

Pena said she and her fellow classmates felt their voices did not matter.

The students at Cape Coral High School began paying attention to discussions of the school board in February out of concern for their schedules. The school newspaper, Seahawk’s Eye, produced a special edition with stories about the schedule changes, as well as an editorial. They also began an Instagram campaign, a petition against the proposal, as well as an organization called Student’s Voice.

“We knew that some of the members on the board were determined to make the changes happen, but we thought that by communicating and talking to them that we might show them how much the changes would impact us,” Pena said. “Then when the announcement was made, it was almost like nothing we could have said would have changed the outcome.”

The concern for many IB students at Cape Coral High School is the loss of an elective course if the schedule was changed to seven periods a day.

At a March 9 meeting explaining the change, school board members were told that the teacher-to-student contact time in a day was less than some of comparable districts around the state.

According to the district’s website, the Academic Services Division began reviewing achievement and growth data for every school in the district during the 2019-2020 summer. The data was separated specific to level – grades 3-5, grades 6-8, combination schools grades 3-8 and high schools grades 9-12. The data was further reviewed by comparing the Lee County School District to the Big 10 Florida districts, as well as Collier and Charlotte counties.

The data, which compares each school’s expected progress against like schools through the state, as well as school grade points earned compared to the Big 10 Districts in Florida, along with Collier and Charlotte, was then analyzed.

According to the data analysis, elementary and middle schools were performing in the upper quartile in both value-added and school grade points, while high schools were performing near the bottom quartile. The high school grade points ranked 11 out of 12 when comparing to the Big 10 and Collier and Charlotte counties.

“Consequently, they were saying some of our high school kids were not as well prepared as others,” Fischer said. “On March 9 we had a presentation given to us about some of the discussions that were occurring. That day we had a briefing and a workshop.”

The district’s website stated that it was determined that Lee County was the only district with a 6 hour 30 minute student day for high school students when compared to the Big 10 districts and Collier and Charlotte counties. Those districts, except for Collier County which has a 6-hour 55- minute day, had seven-hour student days.

With the current four-by-four, or block schedule, that has high school students taking a total of eight classes per year, teachers in Lee County are in contact with their students for only 56 percent of the school day, compared to 75 percent for elementary school students and 62 percent for middle school students.

Fischer said at the March 9 workshop the goal was to add 30 minutes to each school day, which would result in going back to a seven-period day every day, or keeping the four classes one day and another four classes the next, as well as a few other discussions.

“Then all of a sudden it was going to be a seven-period day and we were adding 15 minutes a day. We have had a lot of response from students, parents and teachers. There is a lot of discussion happening now,” Fischer said.

She said she spoke with Adkins Monday morning expressing her many questions.

“I don’t think the timing is very good because there are so many factors that need to be figured out like electives and the planning time for teachers. We need a very clear educational explanation for teachers, students and the public,” Fischer said.

The conversation will continue, she said Monday afternoon, adding that she does not think at this time, the schedule change is a done deal.

Fischer said they are going to do more due diligence, research and checking of data, as well as gathering responses from the principals, the public, parents and teachers.

“I think that the conversation is ongoing now and it will probably come back at a later date,” Fischer said, adding that the focus now is if schools will be reopened before the end of the school year because of the COVID-19 virus. “We have people with multiple concerns — parents not working, salary and food for kids.”

She went on to say that students and parents should not to be frightened by the email and to take a deep breath.

“We are going to have some ongoing conversation. We know we want to do something to make sure kids have every advantage they need,” Fischer said. “I’m more concerned with our response to our global emergency that we are in and making sure people are safe and continue to keep their children with a place to live and food. My recommendation to the superintendent is we wait and see what happens with the pandemic to make sure we are adequately helping our people in the time when people need to focus on health and family.”

Board Member Gwyn Gittens expressed similar concerns, adding that she likes to do things with great transparency, especially with things that are sensitive to the community. She said the timing of the schedule change sent through an email was also a concern.

“You couldn’t have come up with a more perfect storm literally to bring this out. The timing is unbelievable,” Gittens said. “It’s all about communication and all in how you make sure you have a clear, understandable statement, so there is no confusion.”

She said when there is a districtwide decision, as a governance team, in her opinion, they should be informed, involved and included.

The message is loud and clear from the public, that there are concerns regarding the schedule change, Gittens added.

“We are the boots on the ground for understanding what the community is feeling and thinking. They put us here to do that role,” Gittens said. “If we truly are public education, then we have to totally include the public in the decisions that is going to affect anything from curriculum to transportation.”

As far as what she feels is best, either a seven-period day, or a four-by-four schedule, Gittens said she personally believes it has to do with the demographics of students.

“If students are behind in achievement they need to see that teacher every day. If they are at a higher level academically and they have a heavier class load, it makes sense to have a day between to do to all the work they have to do,” Gittens said. “All the data across the nation states that education is not one size fits all. Each child achieves their own personal highest potential.”

Rob Spicker, a district spokesperson, said although they anticipate there will be future board discussions about this topic, as of Tuesday there were no meetings or agendas set.