WM Middle School considers block schedule for all grades

Watertown-Mayer Middle School could switch to a consistent class schedule across all grade levels for next school year if the school board approves a proposal brought froward by middle school principal Nick Guertin during last week’s regular May school board meeting.

Guertin expressed his preference to board that all three grade levels at the middle school begin using a four-period block schedule next year, a format he’s been working to develop throughout this year. Currently, sixth graders use a four-period block schedule, but seventh and eighth graders use a seven-period schedule. The school board is expected to consider the proposal and vote on it sometime in June.

Guertin said that a block schedule would benefit middle school students in a number of ways. He said keeping a consistent schedule through all grade levels at the middle school would help students transition between each grade level, as well as to the high school, which also uses a block schedule.

Perhaps more importantly, however, Guertin said a block schedule would increase contact time between teachers and students in core subject areas, helping students better master important skills that are heavily emphasized in state and national testing. Students would have 85-minute blocks instead of 55 minute periods, allowing them to take just one semester of science and one semester of social studies each year. Math and English, however, would be an all-year, 85-minute block.

“Those are the areas that are tested, and those are the areas where kids need to show proficiency,” Guertin said of math and English. “At a national and state level, they’ve said literacy and math are sort of at the forefront right now.”

Guertin said increased contact time between students and teachers is important for several reasons. In addition to giving more time for teachers to delve deeper in material rather than just a surface level, he said it allows time for students to master and practice skills in the classroom setting rather than at home.

In a 55-minute period, Guertin said many times material is taught in the classroom, but because of time limitations, students end up reinforcing those skills at home with heavy workloads of homework. Guertin argued that longer class periods would allow teachers time to reinforce skills on the spot, rather than have students practice them at home, where teachers can’t be sure students are truly understanding the material.

“We want our teachers to use formative assessment, meaning, measure progress along the way,” Guertin said. “We want our teachers to promote 21st century learning, so kids have to be communicating, collaborating, doing project work, and creating. That takes time, and in 55 minutes, when you talk to teachers, that is really hard to structure all that.

“You want kids to practice while you’re standing there and watching them. You’re teaching them in the moment on the spot, not having the practice take place outside of school. It really has to happen more so in the classroom with the expert there at the time the kids need that help.”

While increased contact time is the primary driving factor in Guertin’s proposal, the inconsistent schedule throughout the building certainly plays a role as well. Guertin said it’s common for sixth graders to struggle adjusting to class periods after moving up from elementary school, and the block schedule used in sixth grade, which was implemented two years ago, has been successful in minimizing those struggles, Guertin said.

In seventh grade, however, students move into a seven-period schedule, which they use in eighth grade as well before switching back to a block schedule in the high school.

“We dump kinds into a seven-period schedule for 2 years, only to pull them back into a block schedule in ninth grade,” he said. “The order doesn’t make any sense to me when I talk about kids and transitions and structure.”

In the current schedule, the students have 55-minute periods and take four core subjects — math, science, English and social studies — for the entire year. In the proposed block schedule, students would have three core class periods of 85 minutes each. Math and English would run all year long, and social studies and science would switch after the first semester.

That fourth period would then be used for students to take electives. The period could be used either as a full block, or for students to take “skinnies,” which would be 42-minute half blocks. Some classes could also operate on an every-other day basis, allowing even more flexibility in that fourth block.

While the benefits of a block schedule are clear, it wouldn’t come without concerns as well. Guertin said some science and social studies teachers would likely be resistant to the schedule change because their contact time with students is reduced. And, while the new schedule will allow students to take both band and choir, something Guertin said he believes is important so that those classes don’t compete against each other, each of those classes would only meet every-other day.

Watertown-Mayer superintendent Dave Marlette said schools across the state tend to be pretty evenly split on whether they use a block or six- or seven-period schedule. One of his concerns with switching to a block schedule, he said, would be maintaining the high levels of achievement the middle school has shown in recent years.

“I’ve been really excited about what our middle school has been doing as of late,” Marlette said. “They’ve been really exceptional. One of my concerns in changing the schedule is, are we going to stop that progression of getting better and better, or are we going to be able to sustain it?”

Marlette also said it would be important to make sure staff was on board with the change.

“Early on, I had middle school staff who came in and visited with me that had some concerns about moving away from the schedule that we’re on right now,” Marlette said. “In talking with Nick, I said you really ought to make sure your staff believes in what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’re going about it, and that your staff is coming along in a way that it’s going to support this kind of change.”

Marlette said he hasn’t heard any more concerns from staff as of late. Guertin also said that even staff members who have shown hesitation at least understand the rationale behind the proposal.


Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]