Nearly a year since a decision was made to switch Chappaqua's middle schools to six 55-minute class periods, early feedback appears mixed, with more class time touted and concern raised about some subjects being taught less often.
In a status update at Wednesday's school board meeting, the principals of Robert E. Bell and Seven Bridges middle schools felt pleased with the longer class period times in terms of giving more instruction for students.
Seven Bridges Principal Martha Zornow described the new schedule as “not only academically sound, it saves money.”
In contrast, she felt that the old schedule of eight 40-minute periods allowed for too little time academically speaking.
“I felt from the time I arrived at Seven Bridges Middle School that 40-plus-minute periods felt very short.”
Zornow said that she surveyed 35 classroom teachers, with 65 percent responding that their students work in small groups or independently for a signifcant class portion, which was one of the objectives intended with the schedule change. Just 12 percent said the periods were too short and only nine percent said they were too long.
Bell Principal Martin Fitzgerald, who was also satisfied, noted that his feedback from staff has been that there is more time for in-depth instruction and fewer class transitions and interruptions.
In general, Fitzgerald described the situation as involving "a high level of satisfaction" but with some dissatisfaction. However, he is optimistic going forward, and said that the glass is “more half full than half empty around the schedule.”
Superintendent Lyn McKay also praised the idea of longer periods, although she urged caution on looking for any connection between the change and student performance.
“We have to look at it carefully.”
Eric Byrne, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said that more work in evaluating the impact needs to be done. This will include continuing to look at the level of satisfaction, how the level of learning is different, and in looking at how the administration is supporting the teachers.
While feedback is positive for more class time, there is concern over the impact on classes deemed to be non-core subjects, such as foreign language, which are seeing fewer class days. Several language teachers from Bell spoke at the meeting and worried that kids are having trouble sticking to routines without daily consistency.
“They come into the room almost as if they don't know what to do," said Francesca Hagadus, a French and Spanish teacher. She noted that things such as a quiz assignment can be forgotten as a result, and urged officials to find a way to have foreign language meet daily again.
“I'm sad that, that foreign language is not offered to a child every day," said Anita Jones, a Spanish teacher. She described anecdotes of confused children, and it being "not unusual" to see a child cry in class due to forgetting about work planned.
Earlier in the meeting, when the topic was raised during discussion between the board and administrators, McKay was sympathetic, noting that a balance has to be made. On the up side, however, she noted that the district, with budget issues being a concern, has still managed to keep its middle school programs.
At one point, school board President Victoria Tipp asked the principals about the impact on non-core classes. Zornow replied that it's hard to gauge, refencing the impact of disruptions such as Sandy.
“It's just been very choppy," she said of the school year so far.
Fitzgerald wants to get information but did not have an answer yet on the impact.
The impact on special education students was another topic mentioned briefly. Seven Bridges parent and PTA member Karen Bazik said that she had conversations with special ed staff on how the schedules were going, with difficulty in terms of pulling children out for support being an issue.
The analysis of the schedule change is far from over, as officials noted the stretch of the current school year and how it's been truncated due to factors like Hurricane Sandy. McKay explained that there will be updates on several items, such supporting intended learning changes (group instruction and independence for students), supporting teachers, observation of switching to active learning environments, and how student work is doing.