A switch in scheduling for Newton County high schools could boost academics and save $2.8 million.
The Newton County School Board on Tuesday learned about how a change to a seven-period day helped transform Union Grove High School in neighboring Henry County into one of the best high schools in the nation.
The board, as part of its research into potential cuts to the 2011-2012 budget, heard a presentation by Union Grove's principal, Tom Smith, and graduation coach, Dawn Jordan. They told the board that in one year, Union Grove had raised the graduation rate from 81 percent to 92 percent, graduated all special needs children with an academic diploma and managed other testing feats, all credited to a seven-period school day with a focus period for students. Union Grove has been named one of America's Best High Schools for five consecutive years by Newsweek Magazine.
When they first started the trek towards excellence, school officials decided to restructure their school day to include an IF period, which stands for instructional focus. An IF period at Union Grove is a "50- minute, non-credit bearing course that affords students the opportunity for tutoring and/or enrichment during the school day." According to the presentation, it is usually an extension of a fourth-period class where students have scheduled time to complete assignments, homework or projects. It also allows for mandatory tutoring for students who need it or additional assistance in subjects such as math or end-of-course and graduation tests. Students need not come early or stay late to receive help.
In the 2008-2009 school year, the school required credit recovery for students who had failed a course, and the graduation rate jumped to 92.3 percent. Union Grove also began giving retesting opportunities and AP tutoring this year for its students, as well as second-chance programs for freshman core courses.
The most recent results show that 90.8 percent of its students met English requirements in AYP and 87.4 percent met math requirements. Additionally, 53 percent of AP students earned a 3 or higher in their tests (444 students and 700 tests) and students showed a 31-point gain in SATs.
Georgia High School Graduation Test results have Union Grove students scoring higher than the system and the state in all subjects, with 98 percent passing in language arts and math, 96 percent in science and 92 percent in social studies. The 2010 graduation rate was 92.4 percent with 100 percent of completers and no certificates of attendance.
Board member Shakila Henderson-Baker called the school "dynamic," and board member Jeff Meadors expressed concern that the high school’s current graduation coaches were not accustomed to the amount and type of work that would be required to do what Union Grove has.
"What I say to our principals is that a graduation coach in this particular schedule is critical," said Superintendent Gary Mathews. "If they have the right person in that job now, bravo. If not, they have to make a concerted effort to make sure the right person has this responsibility."
Students at Newton County’s three high schools currently operate on block scheduling. Under this recommendation, they would go to a schedule with year-long courses and a seven-period day. In a block schedule, teachers have three instructional periods and one planning period.
A switch to a seven-period day would eliminate 47 teaching positions in the high schools, 12 at Eastside, 17 at Newton and 18 at Alcovy. The cuts could save the system $2,820,000 since the average savings for salaries and benefits is roughly $60,000 per position. Although adding periods to the day sounds like it would require more teachers, Director of Secondary Education Samantha Fuhrey explained that would not be the case.
"In the seven-period day, the number of segments taught by an individual teacher increased by 50 percent," said Fuhrey. "When transitioning to the seven-period day, a system can expect to utilize 13-14 percent fewer teachers than in a 4-by-4 block."
Board member Eddie Johnson asked the two principals in attendance, Dr. Craig Lockhart from Newton High School and Dr. LaQuanda Carpenter from Alcovy to voice their opinions on the potential change.
"You’re the expert and I want to follow your guidelines," said Johnson.
Both principals said they were impressed with what they were hearing and both thought a seven-period day would be helpful to their students, especially in math.
"Instructionally, this is one of the more sound decisions we could make," said Lockhart. "…Research shows that at-risk students need to be in math class for a year-long period as opposed to just one semester at a time, so this would work better for them," he said.
"I think, and this may be a loaded statement, but I really do believe that the block schedule is better for teachers, but I think the seven-period day is better for our students," said Carpenter. "Math is our weakness and that’s where we have to put the most attention, and the seven-period day will give us more opportunities for remediation as well as enrichment throughout the day. This would allow us to build the enrichment and remediation within the school-day while we have the students there," she said.
Mathews encouraged board members to vote on whether or not to implement the seven-period day by March. The board will meet twice next month, March 8 and 15, as well as at a called meeting on Feb. 25.