The Manhattan Ogden Board of Education has been questioned in the Mercury recently for giving consideration to changing the schedule at Manhattan High School. I welcome the comments and involvement by anyone interested in education and the success of our students. To provide for a better discussion, allow me to provide some background.
A year ago at the semi-annual Manhattan Ogden Board of Education retreat, Superintendent Robert Shannon provided the board a document showing the organization, schedules, accomplishments and student achievement rates of some of the leading high schools in the Midwest. He chose schools and communities that were similar to ours demographically but that seemed to be outperforming our high school. This was done not to be critical of MHS administration or teachers, but rather to ask the questions, “Are we doing everything we can for our students?” and “How do we get better?”
The current schedule at MHS has been in effect for more than 10 years. In that context, combined with the increasing expectations being placed upon public education, reviewing the effectiveness of the overall organization and specifically the daily schedule seems prudent.
As part of this discussion, the board has already looked at whether to close the lunch hour at MHS, whether to continue allowing Early Release at MHS and changing the daily start time at the high school. The only change that was made coming out of those discussions was to close lunch for sophomores starting in the fall of 2013. In every instance the board provided multiple opportunities for student, teacher and public input.
Now the board is looking at the daily schedule at both the secondary and elementary levels. Specifically we are looking at how we provide sufficient planning time, professional development time and collaboration time for our teachers at all levels. Teachers need this time in order to provide optimal instruction to our students. There is broad consensus in the district that our elementary teachers need more collaboration time in particular. Especially as Kansas adopts Common Core Test Standards and as new state assessment tests approach, we need to make sure we are providing our teachers the tools they need to be successful.
This would be easy if everything were free. But we are talking about time, and time is money. To increase non-instructional time for our teachers while maintaining and even increasing student instruction time is an expensive proposition. It means hiring additional teachers to instruct students while the primary teachers are planning, learning and sharing what they have learned with one another.
Complicating this process is the current political and economic environment. The proposals and attitudes emanating from Topeka are creating great uncertainty and stress for the public school districts of Kansas.
The schedule discussion at the high school revolves around most teachers being on a daily basis responsible for teaching five classes while having one period for planning and one for professional development. This seven-period schedule gives students many options to take classes they enjoy along with the core classes they need to graduate. They see every teacher every day, which is good in many ways. But the class periods are short enough that science labs and many other subjects get short shrift in order to fit within the time constraints of the existing schedule.
Based on its study of the aforementioned benchmark schools, the high school schedule committee brought forth a modified block schedule as one option for the board to consider. This type of schedule has some significant advantages with regard to those classes that need longer meeting periods, at least occasionally. The modified block schedule also creates a time for all of the teachers at MHS to meet and collaborate as departments, grade levels or in whatever grouping they need in order to advance the art and science of instruction at MHS.
There are disadvantages to this schedule also. No system that is affordable is perfect. So this process is about identifying the pros and cons and costs of whatever schedule is chosen for MHS. As long as we all keep what is best for students at the top of our priority list, then I am confident that we will make a great school even better.
Dave Colburn is president of the Manhattan-Ogden Board of Education.