Block schedule giving high school students flexibility

Watertown-Mayer High School’s switch back to a four-period block schedule this year was designed to give students increased flexibility in fitting electives into their schedule, and so far, the switch seems to be doing just that.

Watertown-Mayer High School principal Bob Hennen said the switch from the six-period schedule that was used last year is allowing more students to take advantage of additional class offerings, particularly in music and the arts. Participation in many elective classes, especially music, had dropped significantly last year as students struggled to fit all their classes into a six-period schedule.

Amidst budget cuts, the high school switched to a six-period schedule last year as a cost-saving measure. Although it sounds like a six-period schedule would offer more chances for electives than a four-period schedule, that actually is not the case. A four-period block schedule is really split into half periods, essentially allowing students to take as many as 8 credits each semester, or 16 during the course of the school year. Under a six-period schedule last year, students could take no more than 12 credits.

After fitting all of their core classes into their six-period schedule, most students were left with no more than one choice for an elective. If a student chose band or choir, they often had no chance to take any other electives, so many students subsequently dropped music from
their schedules.

“Kids basically had to pick one or the other, but we’re starting to see those numbers come back up again,” Hennen said.

Hennen said the biggest impact of returning to a block schedule this year has been on the College in the Schools program. That program allows students to take college level courses and earn college credits, thus saving money on college tuition down the road. However, participation in that program dropped when students lost flexibility in scheduling electives.

Hennen said one physics class, in particular, had been decimated by the schedule change last year. With as many as 70 or 80 college-bound students electing to take the class in the past, that number had dwindled to about 20 last year. However, that number is approaching 50 once again this year, and the school was able to add a second section once again.

“We’re really seeing our numbers go back up in College in the Schools program,” said Hennen, who added that most of those classes were near capacity . “We’re really hoping the scheduling, as we proceed in the future, will involve all our kids taking classes that are not just interesting to them, but that are hands on and pushing them at a high level.”
Hennen was quick to point out that returning to a block schedule was not a quick-fix for all the numbers problems that were caused last year. However, he said he hopes the return to a block schedule will help those enrollment numbers stabilize in certain electives over time.

For instance, many students chose to drop out of band last year in order to free up an elective in their schedule. While band director Betsy McCann said she knows that the return to a block schedule this year prevented even more kids from dropping, it wasn’t much of a help in brining back the kids that dropped out last year.

“Unfortunately, band is not a class students can simply re-join after a year off, as they’re far behind their peers at that point,” McCann said in an e-mail. “The band is small this year as a result of that loss, but now that we are back on the four-period day, I expect to see the enrollment numbers rise dramatically in the next couple of years.”

McCann said the block schedule has helped the music department in other ways as well. In addition to band, McCann teaches Advanced Placement Music Theory and Beginning Strings, and said without the students’ increased flexibility in choosing electives, there likely would not have been sufficient interest in those classes to even offer them to students this year.

Besides the increased flexibility for students, the block schedule has offered other advantages as well. Particularly in the industrial education department, the ability for longer class periods has been extremely advantageous.

“This is especially important when there’s a complex set-up or process that must take place in a given time period,” tech ed teacher Jim Erickson said of the longer class periods. “Under the six-period schedule, there was 5-to-10 minutes of setup and 10 minutes of clean-up, out of a 55 minute period. The block schedule gives us additional time for instruction, demonstration or application.”

Erickson said the longer class period has also given some of his classes an opportunity to take on projects off the school’s campus. For example, the construction class recently built a storage shed at the elementary school.

“Under the previous six-period schedule, that type of project wouldn’t have even come up in conversation,” Erickson said.