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Do what’s best for students

Gayle Bennett

By A Contributor

I read earlier this month in the Topeka Capital Journal that Topeka’s major high schools are lowering the number of credits needed for graduation. Now Topeka West is resisting a similar change. Why? The schools are moving from eight-hour to seven-hour schedules. Changing schedules appears to be a regional pastime.

Veteran teacher Ray Kujawa stated to our school board that schedule changes are made before an actual need is demonstrated. He is correct, and I know from experience that teachers have felt that way for many years. I imagine Ray has already been accused of not being a team player, a common analogy when I was teaching.

I recall that in my last six or seven years of teaching, Manhattan High’s schedule was changed four times. When a schedule changes from 58 minutes to 42 minutes, one doesn’t need a Ph.D in mathematics to know that less course material will be covered. I became weary of changing lessons not to fit the needs of my classes, but to fit a constantly changing class length.

I checked MHS’s schedule online and it looks reasonable. Obviously it has changed several times since I left and it certainly bears little resemblance to the block schedule. All veteran teachers will recall the infamous “Access Period” of the 1990s. This was a 90-minute period during which students would be able to go to individual teachers for help. One could envision hallways full of students scurrying from room to room, planners in hand. Teachers would be tutoring individual kids while supervising a roomful of other kids bent over homework.

Of course, that is not what happened. Few kids asked for passes unless they were going to another classroom to hang out, to practice some music or to shoot a few hoops. Access Period proved to be a predictable and colossal waste of time.

When I taught, Manhattan High seemed to be willing to hop onto any bandwagon currently in vogue. This applied to a concept such as “Outcomes-Based Learning.” In theory, I agreed with this concept, and I had always given students a chance to rewrite essays. Why else would any sane person spend every evening writing comments on essays that students had written in 15 minutes? Not surprisingly, Outcomes-Based Learning led to rampant grade inflation, and any discussion of that at any faculty meeting was immediately quashed. 

In the quarter century I taught at Manhattan High, the number of 4.0 graduates grew from about four to more than 40. What did a 4.0 grade average mean in terms of actual effort? For some it represented hard work in advanced classes. For others it meant a line in the family’s holiday letter.

Block scheduling has gone the way of the open classroom. In the 1970s, many districts built schools designed for the open classroom concept. Twenty years later, they spent millions building walls or installing folding curtains to separate classes. 

Finally, never under-estimate the role that bus schedules play in estab-lishing classroom sche-dules. It is huge. 

I feel strongly that thousands of Manhattan High students have had their education seriously diluted by the constant fluctuation of schedules and class length. This problem will not change until schools resist adopting any new theory of learning that comes down the pike.  Money cannot be the sole determiner of how our schools are run. I hope our district will do its research, listen to its teachers, and do what is educationally best for our students.

Gayle Bennett is a former teacher at Manhattan High School.

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