Two years ago, Alcovy High School opened its doors and became Newton County's third high school along with Newton and Eastside. Beyond the obvious - construction, hiring teachers and support staff and choosing a mascot - the Board of Education had a big decision to make. What type of schedule would the new school use?
Students attending Newton takes six classes each school year during two semesters, earning a total of six to seven credits toward graduation. Alcovy administrators conducted a study and surveyed teachers and administrators before proposing the six-period schedule to the BOE in 2006.
According to Alcovy Principal David Easterday, who formerly worked at Newton, it came down to what most of the staff was comfortable with. But Eastside operates under a totally different system.
The pressures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 have forced education systems in the United States to search for every edge in order to pass comprehensive state graduation tests. Each state has a standardized testing system and is measured in Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP, toward the ultimate goals of the legislation.
One of the most recent trends in public schools is block scheduling. The four-by-four block, which Eastside adopted in 1998, allows students to earn eight credits per year versus the traditional six to seven. However, to do this there are costs.
The four-by-four block consists of two four-class semesters. Like a six-period day, classes meet daily but for 90 minutes versus 55.
From a discipline standpoint, the block schedule has an advantage, as there are fewer class changes and less time for students to wander the halls.
Eastside Principal Robert Daria said longer class periods improves the learning environment and allows his staff to focus on teaching.
"Your greatest problems are always going to happen in the halls, the bathrooms and the locker rooms," he said. "I cut down on transition periods and the administrators keep on top of everything. From a managerial standpoint as an administrator, I couldn't ask for anything more."
But more than discipline, the block offers students additional opportunities to earn credits. It is possible to earn 32 credits at Eastside while only 28 are needed to graduate. Conversely, students take new classes each semester. Daria said many students take advantage of the extra credit opportunities in different ways.
"A lot of times kids will go out on a work study program or get a job in the afternoon through our CTAE program," he said. "Some will take dual enrollment through Georgia Perimeter College or DeKalb Tech."
The four-by-four block also allows some wiggle room for students who may fail to earn credits throughout their high school careers.
"You might have a high percent of kids who fall in at-risk [of not graduating on time] and they may struggle early on and fail a class or two in ninth grade," Daria added. "With basically half a year of credits left over, it gives these students an opportunity to make it up."
One of the block's main advantages is also its greatest fault. Instead of a student taking core classes continuously throughout the year, students at Eastside take them for one semester. That may work for college students who move on to different subjects, but high schoolers must pass the Georgia High School Graduation Test. Under the block, a student may not take their next class in a certain core subject for two semesters. It is conceivable a student could go one year between math, English, science or social studies classes.
Alcovy Assistant Principal for Curriculum Debbie Stephens agrees with Daria's assessment concerning discipline and said there are pros and cons to both schedules.
"Most of the time your problems start between classes," she said. "The more opportunities you give your students to move around, the more opportunity they have to get in trouble."
Stephens said the shorter learning period also poses a challenge, but adds teachers can make a difference with good preparation.
"The downside for some students is the acceleration, having to move at that pace," she said. "You can't fly by the seat of your pants while teaching in the block either. Teachers have to be well prepared or students will not focus and classes can get out of control."
Stephens said there are ways to circumvent the gap students face under the block schedule. As a former English teacher, she said her department found ways to teach children year round, even though they had the group of students for one semester.
"You can always modify a schedule, even with the block," Stephens said. "We use to team teach when I was at Eastside. I taught AP English that way in which we would alternate a group of students with another teacher. I would do one thing on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they would do something else on Mondays and Wednesdays then we'd alternate it on Fridays. We would switch at the beginning of each semester, but the same groups of kids had both of us."
This may sound complicated and in a way it is. In order for that scenario to work, students would have to choose to take the same course twice in one year and effectively use up an elective. It also requires cooperation and planning throughout departments. However, the AP students who chose that route received continuous instruction.
Daria said AP classes can sometimes pose a problem due to the testing, which occurs in May, but he added most students adapt quickly and learn to embrace the accelerated pace.
"I usually don't see the layoff between classes a problem," he said. "Occasionally we'll have a situation where a students or parent raises a concern, but we find the majority of students are glad to get classes out of the way quickly."
Perhaps the ideal compromise can be found in neighboring Rockdale County. Rockdale, Heritage and Salem High schools all use a modified or A/B block schedule. A typically day under the modified block starts with 50 minute first period that meets daily, followed by three 110 minute classes. The classes span both semesters and students earn seven credits per year.
Out of the three, the modified block closest resembles a college schedule in that the classes are long, but they meet every other day.
It would appear the modified block touches on all the concerns of each schedule. Teachers and students meet four times a day like the four-by-four block, cutting down on class changes while spanning both semesters, solving the layoff problem.
As it stands, the BOE has no plans to implement any scheduling changes. Superintendent Steve Whatley said the county is pleased with the way they have performed while operating on contrasting schedules.
"The high schools of Newton County have functioned well in the past on different schedules," he said. "Each schedule meets the state requirements for seat time."
However, he added the county is always looking to improve the schools and would explore changes in the schedule if deemed necessary.
"As we look to the future and plan programs to meet students' academic, career needs and state graduation requirements, we will determine what schedule can best provide the course offerings needed."
A BOE-mandated schedule change would be unlikely. A school's performance would have to drop significantly for that to happen. Any change would most likely come from administrator's requests, which the board would consider through a series of work sessions and consultations with a task force to investigate the schedule modeling.
In the meantime, no changes are on tap for 2008-2009. But the new graduation requirements may force the county to take a harder look into moving all three schools onto some form of block scheduling. The new requirements leave even less room for error and the addition of one or two available credit opportunities per year may prove too valuable to overlook.
Daria stressed the importance of working within the system you're given and said his teachers understand what is expected of them.
"If you come in the block and want to half do it, you're not going to work out," Daria added. "The teacher that walks into the classroom and tries to throw something together, it's just not going to happen. You have to prepare and change things up."
Having worked at Newton, Alcovy and Eastside, Stephens said she doesn't believe a school's schedule has any bearing on test scores, and teachers ultimately adapt to each situation.
"Each kid learns differently and has different needs," she said. "Our teachers are great and do what is asked of them. You can't be so inflexible and say 'oh you can't cut the mustard so you can't be successful here.' We are here to provide that instruction and that support."