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Time Is an Essential Teacher Resource, So How Can Schools Be More Creative With It?

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If it were only up to Loveland High School Assistant Principal Marc Heiser, his school would have flexible modular scheduling, or “flex-mod scheduling.” That basically means that each discipline could decide the ideal class length and number of meetings each week, rather than having a standardized schedule where every class period is 45 minutes, no matter the needs of the department. So, for example, math teachers might want to meet every day for 35 minutes. But art teachers might prefer two class meetings a week, each for 90 minutes.

“What you end up seeing is a bunch of different size classes or shapes on a scheduling board,” Heiser said. “And everything’s not going to line up.” A flex-mod schedule would mean some kids would have gaps of time in their schedules when one class has ended, but the next hasn’t yet begun. Where would that student go? Maybe a resource room to get extra help or do homework, says Heiser.

“We’ve got to give permission to teachers, number one, to think that,” Heiser said. “Also, it’s a lovely thought, but systematically it’s a nightmare.”

Heiser knows. He’s in charge of creating Loveland’s master schedule and it’s incredibly challenging, even when the periods are all the same length. He knows his dream of a flex-mod system would be better for students, but it raises so many logistical questions that don’t have answers yet. How do you track a student through four years of flex-mod scheduling with a gradebook based on semesters, for example?

“I’ve got believers, but I don’t have a smart efficient system,” Heiser said. So, in the meantime, he does his best with a traditional bell schedule, which has very little flexibility.

RETHINKING TIME IN SCHOOLS

Time is one of the most powerful levers for change in a school. Everything about how a school runs from where staff go, to when they have breaks and collaborative time, to what classes students can take, is based on how leaders schedule the limited time within a school day, week and year. It’s important to make those instructional minutes count because teachers never feel they have enough time to get everything done.

“There’s all these other things that teachers have to do, that are outside of the core scheduled experience, that they feel overwhelmed,” said Chris Walsh, the head of growth and impact at Abl, a company that makes scheduling software. Before Abl, Walsh was a teacher and tech coordinator and has worked for New Tech Network. He understands that grading, calling parents, meeting with students after class, filling out paperwork, prepping lesson plans, new district initiatives and mandatory professional development can make teachers feel like there’s never enough time.

“I really see time and how you use time as one of the most critical levers for change in school because so many things revolve around it,” Walsh said. And he thinks schools can be more creative about how they use the time they have, without lengthening the school day, which is costly and difficult to achieve at the bargaining table. Through his work with Abl, Walsh has come to realize there are fewer restrictions on how time can be used than people think. That means there’s more flexibility and room for creative thinking about how to make the master schedule serve the strategic goals of a school.

“Ultimately we’re trying to build a movement to help schools rethink time across the board,” Walsh said. “A lot of what we’re battling is cultural norms.”

Abl is part of the Unlocking Time Project, which provides free resources for school leaders at all levels to assess how they’re using time and to start conversations with staff about what could change.

Unlocking Time offers a free school time assessment tool that asks principals to gather information in four areas: the master schedule, bell schedule, staff time and calendaring. After filling in some basic information in those four areas, the principal gets a personalized link with a 15-minute assessment for staff. It asks teachers how they currently use time, and their ideas and openness for changing how time is used. All this information is gathered into a presentation that principals can use to start the dialogue with staff.

“There’s no judgment on our part,” Walsh said. “We’re not trying to push people one way or another. What’s good for one school might not be good for another.” And, in fact, he’s found that in this area practitioners are leading the way in thinking about how time could be used more creatively. School leaders are trying different approaches, pushing ahead of the research in this area.

THE HEADACHES OF SCHEDULING

For anyone who doesn’t have to do the scheduling in a school, it may not be apparent what a challenging and frustrating job it is. Almost every student has some kind of special schedule that needs accommodation, whether that’s an Individualized Education Program (IEP), Advanced Placement (AP) classes, an IB program, resource classes or even sports. On top of that, assistant principals, who are often tasked with scheduling, are looking to balance classes so there are even numbers of special education and English language learners in different sections. They’re trying to give grade-level teachers the same period off so they can plan together, and they’re thinking about professional development time.

Most assistant principals currently use some combination of paper-based requests, massive Excel spreadsheets, a physical magnet board and their Student Information System (SIS) to schedule students. And it quickly turns into a big mess. There are hundreds of moving pieces and often a lot of conflicts. In this cobbled-together process it can be hard for the scheduler to know if a conflict is an essential problem or something that can be ignored.

Marc Heiser started using Abl’s master scheduling software when it was in its infancy because he wanted to schedule strategically. He wanted to move toward a more inclusive model for special education students. Rather than pulling them out of class, he created a schedule within a schedule for kids with IEPs. Then he assigned a resource teacher to those rooms so they could provide extra support in the classroom to kids who needed it, with the added benefit of sharing their wisdom on differentiation with the content teacher. He said that would not have been possible with his old system.

Abl, which is currently offered only to secondary schools, gives Heiser more insight into who the students are in each class. He can mock up a schedule, see conflicts and then click on each one to see which student it is and the specifics of the conflict. He can also run reports specifically looking at the balance of classes by race, by language status, by special needs. When he makes changes to the schedule he can see how it’s going to ripple out and affect other students.

“It allows me to dig into the number of conflicts and who the kids are,” Heiser said. “I have more knowledge and information when I’m building it rather than waiting for the end to have some conversations.”

It also saved Heiser time, so he was able to bring counselors and teachers into the scheduling conversation to get their perspectives on what students needed. This not only supported students, but it also gave teachers insight into how the schedule is made.

“Teachers now understand the bigger picture and they understand why I can or can’t do something,” Heiser said. They also saw how hard it was for him to give them common planning time to work in professional learning communities, and they started taking better advantage of those precious minutes.

“It opened my eyes to how I scheduled,” Heiser said. He began to see how choices he made that “fixed the schedule” might be impacting the class schedule of real students. The technology took some of the logistical burden off him. He no longer had to manually tag kids, for example, so he could think about the process from a more human standpoint.

“Every decision I make is going to affect a kid and I want that personalization from the counselor,” said Heiser, explaining why he relies heavily on counselors when making decisions. “Counselors get to show off how much they know about their kids and advocate for their kids.”

EQUITY

When Dr. Christina Casillas, principal of Roosevelt International Middle School in San Diego, started thinking seriously about scheduling she came at the issue from a data-driven perspective. At the time she was the principal of a nearby high school, where she dug into her school’s testing data. She noticed that students who were not identified as gifted were underperforming, which led her to wonder about their experience during the school day. She began to notice more overtly the tracking that the gifted program created in her school and began to wonder if students were underperforming because of the way they were scheduled.

“I wondered if there were low expectations, especially due to having a separate classroom setting,” Casillas said.

She wanted the ability to look at live data while she was scheduling and to take an entirely student-centered approach to the scheduling process. And she wanted heterogeneous, balanced classes that included the students with special needs, who were still learning English, and who had not been identified as gifted into classes with gifted peers.

“The master schedule is the heart and soul of a school reflecting our vision and priorities,” Casillas said. “I really wanted to explore how I could design a master schedule that was really centered on the student.”

When she became the principal at Roosevelt Middle, she had a chance to experiment with scheduling designed to support the students who struggled the most. She decided to start by scheduling the neediest students into support classes first, and then layer in other students, starting with those who needed a class that is only offered at one time — a “singleton” in scheduler lingo.

She also wanted to assign staff to balanced teaching assignments and provide time for teacher collaboration so they could share strategies, develop common assessments and look at student work together.

“What I was really paying attention to was how the kids were grouped within the school day and how they traveled throughout the day,” Casillas said. The district’s Student Information System had a scheduling tool, but it was blunt and didn’t allow Casillas to think about individual students in this way. The district asked her to pilot Abl to see if it could achieve some of the equity goals she sought.

Abl allowed her to identify students who needed extra math and literacy intervention and schedule them so they had the same English, history, math and science teacher. Scheduling by cohort in this way allowed those teachers to meet, discuss and plan around the same group of students, providing them better support. The students who needed extra support weren’t necessarily all in the same class period, but they have the same teachers at some point in the day.

“Teachers are now realizing they share the same set of kids and how powerful they can make the school experience when they’re working together in teams,” Casillas said.

Roosevelt is in its first year of experimenting with this schedule, so there are still kinks and it’s not yet clear how it will impact achievement data. But Casillas is optimistic because teacher professional learning communities are now centered around specific students. Counselors have joined as well.

“They also provide a lens on the students in terms of social emotional aspects, working with the home, looking at attendance. They bring another value when talking with the teacher team,” Casillas said.

EFFICIENCY

Jason Medlin was Abl’s first end-to-end user and he claims he hit every glitch. But he still recommends the software to other schedulers. He’s now the principal at Academy of Richmond County High School, a Title I school in Augusta, Georgia. But he used to be the assistant principal in charge of scheduling. Many of his students are transient and others choose to come to the school from wealthier neighborhoods for the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Medlin said his roster changes up until the day school starts and he often has 50-70 new kids show up on the first day of school.

He wanted a tool that allowed him to see how changes would affect the rest of the school without messing up everything he had already scheduled. Medlin’s experience of scheduling before Abl was the spreadsheet, clunky SIS variety. He considered it a positive if he could get about 70 percent of students scheduled with the SIS software and then he would hand-schedule the rest.

“Because you’re doing it by hand you stay in the trees and you never see the forest,” Medlin said. It’s hard to see the big picture of the school when he’s making changes to individual student schedules by hand. And every year the first few days of school saw over 100 kids in the gym trying to fix their schedules one by one.

So, Medlin was astounded when he was able to get 92 percent of his school scheduled using Abl on the first run. “My principal said he had never hit 60 percent the first time,” Medlin said. Even better, out of almost 1,000 student requests, only 13 weren’t satisfied.

That’s a feat because like so many schedulers, Medlin has to think about meeting IEPs first, then making sure students in the IB track have their required classes. Next come the AP classes and finally the general education classes. But on top of that, some students go to an off-site skilled trades center to take certificated courses in the afternoon, so they needed to have their core classes in the morning.

“Those things are real challenges,” Medlin said. He’s proud that he was able to schedule every student in a pathway — whether IB, AP, or trade center — with the right classes to complete their course of study. On top of that he was able to schedule so that all foreign language teachers and core content teachers had common planning time and department chairs had an extra planning period.

“We just remained very nimble in our master schedule all the way up to the end,” Medlin said. He could see the downstream effects of changes without locking specific students into schedules that couldn’t change, which helped tremendously.

The efficiency he found in scheduling allowed him to tell the district he didn’t need three of the full-time employees designated to the school based on their size, which meant they had more money in the budget to use elsewhere.

As the first real Abl user, the process was not smooth. Medlin said Abl’s software didn’t communicate with the district’s SIS, so he’d make adjustments in Abl and then have to load it into the SIS to see how it looked. Worse, load times were slow. But, he says the Abl staff were always available to help him with his questions and he understands that his experience helped them work out glitches in their system. Despite the challenges, he’d recommend the software because of what it allowed him to accomplish with the schedule.

“When you’re talking about a school improvement plan, the schedule is your main lever to improve your school,” Medlin said. “If you can build the right schedule, have the kids in the right classes with the right teachers, your school is going to improve the first year.”