School Schedules that Reflect Values and Priorities
“You gotta make it a priority to make your priorities a priority,” author and international speaker Richie Norton noted. It’s easy for school to become bogged down with relentless to-do lists, fires that need to be put out and many constituency groups.
A school’s schedule should reflect its values, priorities and beliefs about teaching and what is best for student learning and the development of a whole child. Courage and boldness are needed to align a school schedule from a place of priorities. Some priorities never make it to the top of the list, often because the school schedule doesn’t align with new goals. A school’s schedule should reflect its values, priorities and beliefs about teaching and what is best for student learning and the development of a whole child.
In my first years as a school leader, we did not achieve certain goals because we felt “trapped” in the schedule as it existed. Teachers did not have adequate time for collaborative planning, opportunities for flexible grouping were minimal, there was inadequate time for physical activity for students, and time for social-emotional learning was often lost. We reached a point several years ago when we were ready to examine our schedule boldly to determine how we could achieve some of these priorities. In the end, we “blew up” our entire schedule to ensure that our values and beliefs were the basis for our schedule—the backbone of the school experience. After several years of implementation, we recently reexamined our schedules again and improved them further.
The following steps of our process can benefit any school’s leadership team as they embark on the daring task of reimagining the school schedule to better meet the needs of the whole child.
Once we decided to review our schedules, we engaged our faculty in a collaborative exercise. Through guided activities, individual teachers ranked their personal priorities and then worked with other teachers to create consensus. This was a rigorous and time-consuming process and well worth every minute. Teachers listened to different perspectives and determined compromises they were willing to make. Of course, school leadership was at the table working with faculty on establishing top priorities.
It became abundantly clear that there is no such thing as a perfect schedule. At the same time, we were able to identify our top priorities that served as the foundation for our new approach to creating schedules.
Willingness to make bold changes
Revamping our school schedule required the courage to create a very different structure to meet our priorities and values. We were strategic in how to bring stakeholders on board and clear about the decision-making process. We designated adequate time for all of the steps outlined below, resulting in successful changes for students, teachers and the school.
Scheduling based on priorities
This stage required time-intensive research and planning. Once we identified priorities, we reviewed various scheduling models from experts in the field and other schools. We created a proposed model and mocked up schedules to ensure that the desired schedule actually worked. This was a critically important step, as the idea for a schedule does not always translate into reality. The team went through several iterations of the schedule model before we landed with one that logistically worked and met our priorities.
Allowing time for this generative process was essential. Teacher input and feedback were solicited throughout the process. It was critically important to identify individual and small groups of teachers who needed direct communication about the changes before we rolled them out to the entire faculty.
Scheduling changes required instructional adjustments as well. In addition to being purposeful in planning for these changes, it was critical to prepare our teachers for some of the significant schedule changes and implications for their instructional decisions. This preparation time varied, from time for teachers to coordinate with each other to formal professional development.
Change in schools can be difficult. This process brought significant changes, and supporting teachers was critically important.
Evaluating and adjusting
The robust process articulated above resulted in schedule changes that had a positive impact on student learning and experience. At the same time, it was impossible to anticipate the full impact of a structural change, and it was vital for us to measure success. We recently reassessed our scheduling model and identified ways the schedule was working toward our values and priorities, and ways we needed to adjust again. We surveyed faculty members, processed options with groups of teacher leaders and worked as a leadership team to create an updated model. While we are pleased with the current results, we will embark on another evaluation in a couple of years to ensure our priorities and values are still being met, and assess what changes we may need to make.
What follows are descriptions of four of our key values and priorities related to meeting the needs of the whole child, along with the rationale behind each priority, what it looks like in the schedule, staffing changes that were required, teacher training needs, benefits and challenges.
DESIGNATED TIME FOR SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING (SEL)
Our experience showed, and research supports, that explicit SEL instruction can promote academic, social and emotional benefits for students. According to a meta-analysis, students receiving quality SEL instruction demonstrated better academic performance, improved attitudes and behaviors, promoted better classroom behavior and reduced emotional distress.
Every student, kindergarten through eighth grade, now begins the day with 17 minutes of “kehillah” (community). This time creates a safe landing space for each student. Teachers facilitate morning meetings and engage students in meaningful SEL. Our teachers use, and were trained in, several programs: Second Step, Responsive Classroom and Calm Classroom. Students experience variety throughout the week, including mindfulness, team building, direct SEL instruction and opportunities for strengthening relationships among students and between students and teachers.
Teacher leaders create kehillah plans for the week that incorporate elements of these different programs, along with Jewish values woven into the fabric of the lessons. We have strong teacher leaders in these roles, and the model would not be successful without their advance preparation. Most importantly, teachers integrate this learning throughout the day in the context of their classroom experiences.
MEETING THE NEEDS OF DIVERSE LEARNERS
Meeting all students where they are is a commitment that requires that we reconfigure our old systems, practices and paradigms... The commitment to meet all students where they are is a moral one; we must do this because we now know from decades of cross-disciplinary research that it is the only effective way to optimize learning and growth for all children. Rudenstine, Schaef, Bacallao, and Hakani, “Meeting Students Where They Are”
A key aspect of creating new systems is providing for flexible grouping based on student needs that enables timely differentiated support and equitable outcomes. Our restructured schedules allow math and Hebrew (and reading for K-4) to happen at the same time across a grade level. This “master schedule” ensures that students from any class who require intervention or enrichment are able to be grouped together and to receive direct instruction based on their readiness levels.
This structural change required shifting our teaching assignments in several ways. In the lower grades, cross-grade levels became teams in a more robust way. As an example, first grade general studies teachers became available during second grade math and reading, and vice versa. This provided the opportunity to have more teachers available during these key instructional times to provide differentiated instruction. In addition, our math and Hebrew teams in the upper grades transitioned to each teaching fifth through eighth grades, enabling an entire grade to have the content at the same time.
Several areas of training were required for these structural changes. Lower grade general studies teachers needed to learn new curricular programs, as well as how to co-teach and collaborate in new ways. Upper grade math and Hebrew teachers were placed in new grade levels and needed to learn new curricular programs as well. These teachers also needed to adjust to new age ranges and teaching across four grades.
The benefits of this model are clear. Students in the lower grades are receiving more small-group direct instruction at their specific levels than we were able to provide before. The teaching structure allows us to use multiple curricular programs based on student needs. In fifth through eighth grades, the changes allowed for movement between groups and ensured that placement in these subject areas did not dictate placement in other classes.
MORE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY FOR STUDENTS
Physical activity promotes improvements in executive functioning and controlling emotions. Physical activity also improves other components of cognition, including memory, processing speed, attention and academic performance. In addition, regular physical activity reduces symptoms of anxiety.
In our current schedule, all K-8 students have 25 minutes of PE four days a week, in addition to our traditional 30 minutes of recess daily. The entire grade has PE at the same time in our double gym. Both PE teachers are available and teaching at the same time. Teachers organize lessons in a way that maximizes the space as well as the time spent in physical activity. They collaborated to create a different model for classes to accommodate the number of students in the gym at a time and explored different models of co-teaching until they found the right fit for student needs and their partnership.
In addition to experiencing the benefits noted above, four days of PE provides continuity. Routines are smooth, as students come in ready to participate. This model allows for numerous different groupings, and students have the opportunity to be on teams/groups with friends and peers they may not see at any other time of day. In addition, the students’ measurable aerobic capacity increased due to extra minutes per week of daily exercise.
INCREASE INSTRUCTIONAL TIME AND REDUCE TRANSITIONS
Educators understand the power of each minute of a class period. It requires time to settle students, provide direct instruction, facilitate independent or group learning and provide adequate closure. Our prior schedule had 11 periods of 38 minutes each. In our transition to a schedule with 7 periods of 57 minutes each, we saved close to an hour of transition time a week.
Teacher training was a key element, as our faculty had grown used to teaching within a 38-minute block. Assessing how to make instructional changes and how to provide necessary breaks for students in longer working periods was critical. In addition, the transition of schedules required some altering of minutes devoted to different content areas, as it was not a “clean” conversion for all subjects. This required discussion among the leadership team about priorities, and helping teachers adjust as some subjects gained minutes per week while others lost minutes.
The process and examples outlined above can help frame the revamping of schedules in any school. A valuable starting point with faculty could be to examine current schedules and see what values and priorities can be identified. This can serve as a launching pad for exploration of what additional or different values and priorities you would like your schedules to demonstrate.