WMMS to switch to block schedule next year

The Watertown-Mayer School Board approved Middle School principal Nick Guertin’s recommendation to switch to a block schedule in all three grade levels beginning next school year during its June 24 meeting.

The proposal, first brought to the board during its May meeting, is designed in large part to place a greater emphasis on Math and English, giving students more class time in those areas, which are heavily tested on standardized tests. The change will also give the school a more consistent schedule — previously, sixth graders have used a block schedule and seventh and eighth graders have used a six-period schedule — and will also allow for greater elective flexibility.

“In 2013, our focus is more on literacy and mathematics,” Guertin said. “That’s where we’re at as a nation, that’s where we’re at as a state, and that’s where we’re at as a district. We’re trying to reshape the schedule so kids have adequate time to meet those learning expectations.”

By switching to a block schedule, which will feature 85-minute classes instead of the current 55-minute classes, students will have more time in both math and English. Students will have one full block of each of those classes all year long.

However, students’ time in social studies and science will be reduced by roughly 25 percent in order to place a greater emphasis on math and English. Instead of a full year, students will now take only one semester each of science and social studies, although each class period will be 55 percent longer than it was this year. That extra time can be beneficial in many science classes that require time to set up or take down lab work, but Guertin admitted there could be a transition period for many teachers.

“In seventh and eighth grade, it’s more dramatic, especially for your social studies and science teachers, because they have to learn how to program in a semester,” he said. “The other big change for seventh and eighth grade teachers is they have to adapt to teaching 85 minutes. For math or English teachers, I don’t think that’s as much of a curveball, because they need more time, and they’re looking for more time. When it comes to science and social studies, it’s different for those teachers. It all comes down to how they program.”

Three of the four blocks for students will be occupied each day by English, math and science/social studies. That fourth 85-minute block offers students numerous elective options, including splitting the block in half into two “skinny” classes, using it as a full block, taking multiple classes that meet on alternating days, or a combination of those options.

Students will now have the option to take both band and choir if they choose, something Guertin has said he believes is important. Students not taking band or choir will have the option for a general music class or art. There will also be a web design class, and the school will likely begin to develop a few more elective options as well. Guertin hopes that as time goes on, more industrial tech classes or foreign language classes can also be offered as electives at the middle school level.

In addition to increased elective flexibility, the new schedule will allow all students to have a health class. Currently, only seventh graders have health class, but under the new schedule, all sixth through eighth grade students will have health for one semester every-other day.

“I think health is a big deal in our school,” Guertin said. “We would like to see all our kids get health. … We have major topics out there right now that our kids need to hear in all grade levels, but they only have it right now in seventh grade.”

Consistency is also a factor in the schedule change. Sixth graders have already been on a block schedule because fewer and longer class periods aids with their transition to middle school life. However, seventh and eighth graders have switched to a six-period schedule in recent years, before moving right back to a block-schedule when they reach high school.

Guertin said seventh grade has been a difficult year for many students, who struggle with the suddenly shorter periods. Less class time often leads to students being asked to do more work outside of school, and Guertin said homework loads can suddenly swell, and students are doing more work away from the teacher, where nobody is making sure they truly understand the material.

“There’s no reason to have a transition in seventh grade, especially when we go right back to a block in ninth grade,” Guertin said. “I struggle with all kinds of homework being dumped on kids when we’re trying to get them into extracurricular activities.”

Guertin said lengthier blocks of time in each class also promotes 21st century learning, with more time for student collaboration, problem solving, and immediate reinforcement of material from teachers on a one-on-one basis with students.

“It’s hard to set that kind of 21st century learning up in 55 minutes,” Guertin said. “There isn’t a lot of problem solving. There isn’t a lot of personalized learning.”


In other business:

• The school board approved the district’s revised 2012-13 budget and the proposed annual budget for 2013-14, as presented by Superintendent Dave Marlette and Finance Manager Lisa Raiter.

The 2012-13 revised budget showed total revenues of $23,343,018 from last year, and total expenditures of only $21,830,412. However, that net $1.5 million increase is due to revenue from the primary school facility bond that was issued last year, most of which won’t actually be spent until this year. That primary school remodeling project is ongoing.

Likewise, the proposed 2013-14 budget shows total revenues of $20,487,567, and expenditures of $22,815,409. However, that net decrease of $2.3 million is largely because of those primary school construction expenses, money that will be spent this year on revenue collected last year.

• The board approved the transfer of the remaining portion of the vehicle transportation services contract from Johnson Bus Company of Watertown to Koch Bus Company of Waconia. The contract runs through June 30, 2016. Neil and Susan Johnson are retiring from the business after 38 years serving the Watertown-Mayer district. Koch has already been subcontracting about 50 percent of the routes under the Johnsons for the last two years. Look for more on the Johnsons and their nearly four decades of service to the district in next week’s Carver County News.

• The board approved the hire of a Performing Arts Center director for the 2013-14 school year. Marlette recommended the action to better coordinate use of the facility, get more frequent use from outside groups, and to better oversee those groups while they are using the facility. The PAC director will handle scheduling of the facility, help market the facility, conduct inspections before and after the use of the facility by outside groups, act as on-site representative during events, and more. The position will pay $21,000.

• The board met in closed session for the annual superintendent’s review. The board is expected to provide a public report on its findings during the next meeting.

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]