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December 3, 1999     Cape Gazette
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December 3, 1999

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CAPE G, liday, De-mber'3- Ieeemr 9. ib9 - J9 Cape parents question efficiency of high school block scheduling By Kerry Kester Cape Henlopen School District board members are again examin- ing the strengths and weaknesses of block scheduling at the high school, after a parent in the dis- trict expressed concern the sched- uling system was inhibiting her daughter's academic progress. Cape high converted from tra- ditional strip scheduling to block scheduling two years ago. Block scheduling increases class time to approximately 90 minutes, and classes meet for only one semes- ter. Block scheduling allows stu- dents to take up to eight courses per year; with the previously used strip schedules, they could take seven. Dr. Rama Peri said at the Nov. 11 board meeting that the areas she has deemed problematic from her perspective are as follows: 90-minute classes may be too long, homework may be dispro- portionate for lessons, course se- quencing may be ineffective; flexibility for failure sends the wrong message to students and student/teacher bonds are less- ened. Class length Peri said most people do not have an attention span that sup- ports 90 minutes of didactic learning. Since teachers general- ly do not lecture for 90 minutes straight, the amount of material covered in the semester course is actually less during the semester than it would be through the course of a year under the former- ly used schedule, Peri contended. Additionally, she said, students did not have enough time to process information in a manner that would promote information retention. Sue Dutton, high school assis- tant principal, responded to PeWs assertions: "Sometimes kids think when they're assigned something to do, it's homework." However, she said, some class work is guid- ed practice, as opposed to inde- pendent practice, which is home- work. Dutton agreed with Peri that the students' attention spans wouldn't permit lengthy presen- tations, but she said teachers are aware of that and present material in a variety of manners not only to compensate for attention spans but also in recognition of stu- dents' different learning styles. Dutton also said that a survey of teachers indicated the amount of material covered was about the same in block scheduling as it was in strip scheduling. Homework Peri said her daughter, like oth- er honors students, has an inordi- nate amount of homework. Al- though she expects honors stu- dents to have more to do, they get the equivalent of two days home- work but only one day to mental- ly process information. If the stu- dents have a problem with a con- cept, they may find themselves in the difficult position of having an even greater struggle because by the next day, they had two more days of homework to add to the already problematic issue. "In a sense, they're trying to cram," said Peri. "I worry about how much they're going to retain. "It's also a problem with proj- ects." With strip scheduling, a project may have a four-week time period for completion. With the accelerated course length, stu- dents may have only two weeks, which may be inadequate time to conduct research. "The kids are not going to the libraries as they should be, and I don't think the Internet is a good substitute." "The expectation for honors students is high," said Dutton, noting that indeed, they have a heavier homework load. Howev- er, she said, although the load may be heavier per course, there are only four, rather than seven cours- es, so the amount should be about the same. "Most knowledge is lost in the first four to five days and then it levels out," said Dutton, citing the Ebbinghaus curve - data from a learning theory. Dutton paged through a packet of information with several sources giving block scheduling research results that showed no significant difference in retention. "Does the data support it [block scheduling] or doesn't it?" asked acting Superintendent Andy Bran- denberger. 'q'he data supports it; the data doesn't support it." Bran- denberger acknowledged that for every premise of the issue, people could - regardless of their position - find data to support their points. Course sequencing "The courses don't flow," said Peri, noting her daughter had mathematics first term of fresh- man year but not again until sec- ond term of sophomore year. "This isn't what college is like," she said, explaining sequencing not only fell correctly but classes don't meet every day of the week. "This isn't college, and I don't ex- pect it to be college." Because her daughter is in an honors program, where there are fewer choices for class times, she had to take three full honors courses in one semester to be able to schedule the foreign language she wanted to study. The state requires 22 courses for graduation, she said. "Most kids can finish graduation require- ments in three years. As a taxpay- er, I'm asking why I'm paying for a fourth year if these kids can graduate in three years?" "A lot of our kids graduate with 35 credits, 32 credits," said Dut- ton. Many students opt for intern- ships in their senior year. "We have a number of kids who start college early...and they come back in June to get their diplomas." Again, Dutton said data showed students didn't lose by having gaps between courses and their next level of study. Cape, she said, had a somewhat modified block plan to accommodate fourth-period music students, and some advanced placement courses were married for alternate days for an entire school year. Dutton also said students chose their course sequences for themselves. Flexibility Peri said she had learned from district officials that one advan- tage of block scheduling is stu- dents who fail a course have the flexibility to repeat the course and still have enough time to get all their required credits. Peri said the message students receive from that concept is if they don't work hard enough to pass a course it is of no consequence because they will have other chances. District officials did not address Peri's concern specifically. How- ever, Dutton said she was aware that many students who took last year's state test did not do well, because they did not take the test seriously. She said she expects this year's results will be differ- ent, because the students are fully aware that their performances on state tests are integrated with their promotion and graduation status, whereas last year's tests were not. Dutton said results from a sur- vey conducted last year over- whelmingly supported continuing block scheduling. Additionally, she said, student attendance was higher, the number of students on the honor roll was up, and teacher attendance was higher. Student/teacher bond "The relationship a teacher and student develop over a year, I think, is crucial," said Peri. Teenagers undergo many changes they may cope with through posi- tive relationships with their teach- ers. Peri said she had learned from some teachers they were dis- mayed that a semester after they had taught a student, they couldn't remember the student's name when they passed in the hallway. Dutton said the administration's research with teachers showed teachers felt they got to know their students just as well in the block scheduling system as the strip scheduling system. She said, however, she believed it would be in the students' best interest if the school developed some kind of program for ninth-graders to get extra attention. Dutton said the school and board may want to consider an embedded schedule for the freshmen. Officials respond Board member Allan Redden said Cape, blessed with many ex- cellent teachers, can make any- thing work because of the educa- tors' skills. However, he said, af- ter monitoring the ups and downs of the scheduling system for the past two years, he favors a modi- fied block schedule. Board member Nora Martin echoed Peri's concern that stu- dents weren't necessarily getting their core courses in a timely manner relative to the state testing schedule. Board member Estie Class and Martin both expressed an interest in learning more about an A/B modified block scheduling system. Board President June Tu- ransky said she favored examin- ing some kind of special consider- ation for freshmen. Superintendent Brandenberger reiterated the nature of research is such that with data available to support any position, it's essen- tially useless. \\; Furthermore, he said, the data that can be collected is essentially subjective and must remain so, because it would be impossible to establish a control group for ob- jective data. "The sad thing is I don't think one of us is 100 percent satisfied with what we've got, but we're at a loss as to what to do to fix it," said Class. Peri said she brought the issue to the board's attention in case there was time and the board wanted to modify scheduling for next year. Dutton explained course selec- tion booklets are due at the printer Dec. 22, and the students' course selection for next year's classes begins in February. The board di- rected Brandenberger to present the issue to the administrative cabinet for input, then relay that information to the board as soon as possible. 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