When junior Larkin Barnard-Bahn founded the high school a capella club last year, she anticipated its small size (only five members) would lead to some problems.
But she didn’t foresee the biggest challenge — finding time to practice.
Swim practices, chorus rehearsals and school publications keep students too busy to practice after school, so the club rehearses twice a week before school, inconveniencing members who need to complete homework or see teachers.
But next year, those problems may disappear with the addition of a flex period, a 35-minute period after elective.
The flex period was designed to allow students and teachers to accomplish tasks that are currently pushed into lunch, elective or after school, such as getting help from teachers, going on field trips (although the flex period is not after or before lunch), practicing for upcoming concerts or holding club meetings.
The flex period is one of four major changes in the new high school schedule, announced by head of school Lee Thomsen on May 8.
The decrease in the number of classes per day, the length of classes and electives, and the addition of passing periods are the three other changes for the high school.
In the middle school, there will also be a flex period, shorter periods and passing periods, but the middle school elective remains the same length and takes place at the same time as in the current schedule.
According to head of high school Brooke Wells, the initial push to change the schedules came through the areas of growth identified in the school’s strategic plan released this year (such as the arts, emotional well-being and STEM — science, technology, engineering and math).
“The (planning) committee always wanted to look at the schedule, because if we wanted to add, for example, a better computer science program or better drama program, the schedule kept getting in the way,” Wells said.
According to dean of student life and math teacher Patricia Jacobsen, the scheduling committee that proposed the new schedule was formed in the summer and began meeting in September.
The committee was open for all teachers to join, according to Jacobsen, and ultimately included committee chair Wells, head of middle school Rommel Loria, head of lower school Christy Vail, five high school teachers, four middle school teachers, two lower school teachers, learning specialist Kelley Brown and chief financial officer William Petchauer.
“We weren’t really dead set on changing the schedule; we were trying to have a conversation about a better option for our students,” Jacobsen said.
The issues with the current schedule began to appear, Wells said, with another idea in the strategic plan — organizing lunches at which teachers in the same subject matter but at different grade levels could discuss their teaching methods and material.
According to Wells, there was nearly no time when teachers from different grade levels could meet. Their lunches were taken up by faculty meetings, student-teacher meetings, club meetings and more.
“Our task became to alleviate time and space pressure for students and teachers,” Wells said.
Jacobsen said one of the committee’s additional goals was creating a schedule suitable for both the middle and high school.
Another was accommodating different teaching styles. Music teachers, she said, prefer to meet with their students daily, while Jacobsen said she and the art teachers don’t need to meet with students every day and would rather teach for longer periods of time.
Jacobsen added that due to students being late for class or leaving to get water or go to the restroom, she gets only 40 minutes of teaching time, which rarely gives her students time to do homework in class.
However, she said doing homework in class is valuable because it can help her identify comprehension issues early.
After considering teachers’ desires, the committee examined the schedules of various high schools in the area, and some teachers on the committee informally polled their classes about the current schedule and changes under consideration.
History teacher and committee member Chris Kuipers said though student opinion was valued in reshaping the schedule, there was no all-school or all-high school poll about the proposed changes because the collective wisdom of educators outweighed that of students.
“It was what we believe is best for students, so we had to put on our adult hats and say, ‘We are the adults, and we are the professionals, and we’ve studied this,’” he said.
“We had to put on our adult hats and say, ‘We are the adults, and we are the professionals, and we’ve studied this.’”
However, students did fill out a Google poll about changing the schedule at the beginning of the school year.
In a May 21 Octagon poll of 59 freshmen, sophomores and juniors, 43 percent favored changing the schedule in some way.
After the committee went through about 16 versions of the schedule, Jacobsen said it recommended the adoption of the Beta three schedule for the 2019-20 school year.
The new schedule will not be tested before its implementation, according to Kuipers, as the changes are too minor, and there is insufficient time left in the year for an accurate test.
The biggest departure from last year’s schedule is the addition of a flex period.
Jacobsen and Wells said a calendar will be created to allow teachers and clubs to “book” certain flex periods.
The committee also designed the flex period to allow music groups to practice every day.
Band director Bob Ratcliff said he won’t know the full effect of the flex period until it is implemented, nor does he know if he will use the period until he has a better idea of the composition of next year’s bands.
Though Ratcliff said he would like to meet with his class every day, he said he won’t count on using the period regularly.
“I don’t view flex time as class time,” Ratcliff said. “It’s not going to work like that; we’re all going to be vying for the time of our kids.”
However, Ratcliff said he currently pulls middle school jazz band players out of advisory to allow them to rehearse with the high school before big competitions.
For those few weeks, he said, a shared flex period could be useful.
In the middle school, Thomsen said the flex period will replace advisory but also could offer students time to attend clubs.
Sixty-four percent of students polled on May 21 who said they favored changing the schedule supported the flex period, and three of eight teachers polled on May 13 said they strongly favored it.
According to Thomsen, the flex period was also added to help student-athletes.
“If you are an athlete and you have to leave early, you would only miss one academic class, but right now you miss two,” he said.
Students would be missing a class that they won’t have the next day, though, due to the backward rotation of classes.
According to Wells, the schedule will rotate backward because it ensures teachers with multiple periods of the same class never have one period lagging more than one day behind another.
Thomsen and Jacobsen said another goal of the flex period was to free up lunch for teachers and students.
Many teachers spend their lunches working, Jacobsen said. Meanwhile, students meet with teachers, take makeup tests and work on projects.
Thomsen added that many teachers wanted the chance to talk to their colleagues and eat their lunch.
Jacobsen said, “If you walk around during lunch, there will be teachers with rooms with five or six kids just kind of waiting (for the teacher).”
“It seems like eating has become sort of secondary to what takes place during lunch,” he said.
Jacobsen added that the flex period could be used for reviewing for AP exams. Currently, teachers who want to hold review sessions — such as physics and math teacher Glenn Mangold and history teacher Sue Nellis — often need to do so after school.
Furthermore, Jacobsen said she hopes the period can be used for drug and alcohol and sex education classes to minimize the impact of such all-grade activities on mixed-grade classes.
If students don’t have anything scheduled during flex period, she added, students can simply do homework or work with their friends.
“Socializing is really important,” Jacobsen said. “It helps alleviate stress, and it’s really good for (students) to learn how to talk to each other and have some downtime.”
“Socializing is really important. It helps alleviate stress, and it’s really good for (students) to learn how to talk to each other and have some downtime.”
But Spanish teacher Patricia Portillo said adding a flex period may not help her with student-teacher meetings.
“I think that instead of me as a teacher feeling like I have more time, I’m going to feel like I’m going to be more stressed and more pressed for making sure that (students are) on track and that they didn’t miss something,” she said.
To provide time for the flex period, the number of classes per day will be decreased.
Currently, six classes meet every day in a six-day rotation, but next year, only five classes will meet per day in a six-day rotation. Students will still be able to take up to six different classes, but every day, only five of their classes will meet.
Though students who take five classes may go a day without their free period, the flex period will ensure students have free time every day
Fifty-six percent of students polled on May 21 that said they were in favor of changing the schedule also supported reducing the number of classes in rotation from six to five.
But sophomore Avinash Krishna said he does not.
Krishna said at academically rigorous schools such as Country Day, repetition is crucial, especially for students who struggle in classes.
“I have a hard time with math, and without that repetition, I might forget concepts or struggle to understand them,” he said.
Junior Spencer Scott agreed.
“In math, I feel it’s important to just keep a rhythm: you learn something new, you do the homework,” he said. “In APUSH (AP U.S. History), I really like to just keep on going every single day.
“I feel we could get used to (the new schedule), but it will upset the rhythm.”
Krishna said students could see their teachers during flex period, but “it’s not the same as having in-class instruction.”
Furthermore, he said he may not be the only student who needs that teacher during flex period, and some students may not be as available or motivated to talk to their teachers.
Senior Jack Christian said the pace of AP Physics C, which is already “insanely fast,” will definitely be affected.
The curriculum is split in two parts, mechanics and electricity and magnetism, and according to Christian, many schools teach the sections as separate, year-long classes.
Country Day is among one of the less than 1 percent of schools nationwide that teach AP Physics C in one year, Christian said.
During the summer, students learn the whole first chapter, motion along a line. The entire mechanics unit is taught in the first semester, and all of electricity and magnetism in the second.
Furthermore, Christian said an important part of the class is having time to do homework while Mangold can help.
“Every minute in that class is valuable, and we don’t even get to everything,” Christian said.
For example, Christian had to learn harmonic motion and inductors outside of class.
“Taking away time is especially hurtful in the electricity and magnetism section of the course, because that is even decreased even shorter because of the AP test,” he said. “Due to the difficulty of the AP Physics material and the sheer weight of material, it’s going to be very difficult to lose 15 hours of class time.”
In the May 13 poll, three high school teachers stated they strongly favored the five-class rotation.
Kuipers is a proponent of reducing the number of classes because, he said, it will help students feel less stressed.
“I’m not naive enough to think that dropping one period is going to solve everything, but having five classes in one day is less than six,” he said. “It’s one less class that somebody has to run and one less class that, hopefully, you need to do homework for.”
“I think that sometimes students and teachers can get burned out, and it’s a relief for the students to think, ‘Oh, I don’t have geometry tomorrow; I can have a break from that homework,’” she said.
Both Jacobsen and Kuipers said they do not plan to assign extra homework on the days their classes will be dropped.
Wells said there will even be a school rule against assigning homework on the days class isn’t held.
“We’re not trying to make up for lost time,” Jacobsen said. “Hopefully, we will actually get back time that’s taken away with field trips and drug and alcohol talks.”
These all-grade or all-school events usually cut into class time but will take place during flex period next year, according to Wells.
English teacher Jason Hinojosa said dropping a class every six days may decrease the number of books his students can read in class, but the loss is easier to recover.
According to Hinojosa, the AP English Literature and Composition exam does not require students to read a specific number of books. Rather, it tests their ability to write about a few, which students can still do with the new schedule.
Chemistry teacher Victoria Conner said that over time, the concern of lacking contact between students and teachers every day will become a non-issue.
But in the foreign language department, the loss of a class can have more drastic effects.
“As language teachers, we don’t like (dropping one class), as constant, thoughtful redundancy is the way to learn a language,” Latin teacher Jane Batarseh said.
She added that in the Arabic class she will teach at the University of California, Davis next year, students have class five days a week because learning a language requires repetition.
Portillo said the potential for forgetting material is much higher in the new schedule.
“You may introduce a topic one day and not have class the next day or have a weekend in between,” she said. “Students who are learning language usually learn better by having continuous repetition and practice of the materials. The more we break that up, the more difficult it is.”
The reduced classes, along with the elimination of long period, create a loss of 15.75 hours a year, assuming 45- and 65-minute classes for a 33-week school year; even assuming 40- and 60-minute classes, 2.25 hours are lost each year.
Some students say the hour loss won’t affect the pace of higher-level classes.
Krishna said AP U.S. History will not be affected by losing class time, such as the three hours lost in the fall when Country Day closed due to bad air quality.
“We missed three days, but things went smoothly and my classes are still doing fine,” he said.
But Scott disagreed.
“AP classes need to get through a lot of stuff, and you can’t just cut back on their hours and make it up,” he said.
Meanwhile, each of the six classes will meet for 52 minutes, with no more long period.
Hinojosa said he looks forward to the longer classes.
He said there will be more time for workshops, in which students write a thesis statement or an introductory paragraph and receive his feedback.
“Right now, that kind of activity gets squeezed at the end, and we don’t get a chance to talk about it,” Hinojosa said.
While the long period is occasionally used in science classes for labs, Conner said the new schedule makes it easier for faculty members with multiple sections of a class.
“It’ll be much easier to keep the different sections on the same task and in the same place,” she said.
Jacobsen said the longer classes will allow her to dive deeper into the teaching material every day, so she won’t miss the long period.
“If you’re doing math for 50 minutes, that’s an awful lot of time, especially if you’re doing 30 minutes of homework,” she said. “If that’s not (enough), we might be trying to teach too much.”
Like Jacobsen, Hinojosa and Kuipers said the long period isn’t crucial to their curriculum.
Hinojosa said he utilizes the long period for activities such as TED Talks but that they can be incorporated into next year’s extended class periods.
Kuipers also said he uses long periods for videos and deeper investigations but can adapt those to any class length.
“I’m not sure that extra 18 minutes (of class during long period) is going to be the key that unlocks some special learning ability,” he said.
But foreign language teachers said losing long periods severely hurts test preparation.
Portillo said students in her AP Spanish Language and Culture class practice the AP exam’s 55-minute persuasive essay every other long period.
Unlike multiple-choice or short-answer questions, which can still fit into a 52-minute class period or split into multiple class periods, the essay must be completed in one sitting to prevent students from doing any research outside of class and simulate the testing experience as realistically as possible, according to Portillo.
“Without that long period, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to give practice in a way that’s fair to the students and adequate in terms of time,” Portillo said.
However, Kuipers said the delivery of AP-preparatory content is not dependent on the schedule.
“There are a lot of different high schools in the country with a lot of different schedule models that do really well on the AP,” he said. “Sheer minutes in class is not going to be is not the determining factor on AP exams.”
Non-academic teachers are affected by the schedule change, too; the elective period will be reduced from 70 minutes to 60.
Ratcliff said the shortening of elective will affect his class, especially because he likely will not be able to get every member of the Jazz Band together during flex period.
Currently, he plans for about two hours of class a week due to the abundance of holidays in the current schedule.
After teaching AP Music Theory, which met daily last year, Ratcliff said meeting daily, even for shorter periods of time, allows him to cover more material.
“I could talk about something one day, and they would remember the next day,” he said. “But with elective, you see them on a Thursday, (and) you’re not going to see them again until a Monday or maybe even Tuesday.”
“With elective, you see them on a Thursday, (and) you’re not going to see them again until a Monday or maybe even Tuesday.”
Though Ratcliff said he prefers meeting with his class every day, if that is not possible due to booked flex periods, he said he would want as much time per day as possible.
Art teacher Andy Cunningham said the current schedule doesn’t give his art students enough time to work.
“Students come into the classroom, and they don’t automatically get to work (because the classroom) is a space for decompression, and getting into art takes some time,” he said.
Cunningham said students also need time to get their supplies at the beginning of class and time to clean up at the end of class.
Some art students even work during lunch, Cunningham said.
While Cunningham said “some kids may just get up and leave” during the flex period, he added that the additional time would certainly help some artists.
Junior Jason Li, an AP Studio Art student, agreed that the current schedule does not offer art students enough time to complete their drawings.
“My art style is very realistic, so I need a long time to draw, and the current schedule doesn’t have that,” Li said.
However, instead of using the flex period to extend the elective, Li said he would prefer to go home and work on his art without worrying about getting supplies.
Thomsen said the passing periods will diminish the “hamster-wheel effect” created by back-to-back classes and allow students to go to the bathroom or get water without being late for class.
Hinojosa said he is “very excited” about the passing periods.
“It seems small, but to actually have time to get to class, to catch your breath and use the restroom is so important,” he said. “Right now, it feels like everyone’s rushed and sort of frantic, and we don’t start class on time or end class on time. There’s always this expectation that you’re about to be late.”
“With passing periods, you have the time to, as the class is settling in, make a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom,” she said.
However, Batarseh said she doesn’t know if passing periods are necessary for her classes.
“I like people to be on time, (and) if you start class on time, students tend to want to get to class on time,” she said. “Sometimes I have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom or my students do, but we know to go to the bathroom and get back to class; it’s not a big deal.”
“I’ve never really had a problem getting to a class,” he said. “If I was late, I just told the teacher that I was in the other class, and every single teacher has been OK with it.”
Overall, Thomsen said the greatest advantages of the new schedule are creating more time to go deeper into studying, thinking, reflection and practice through the extended classes; holding no more than two classes before some kind of break through the flex period; and cutting down on the number of preparations student do night-to-night through the five-class rotation.
But Portillo and Batarseh aren’t sure the new schedule will revolutionize the amount of work or stress students have.
“The students here are so busy that when there’s any gap and any free time, they fill it, especially if they’re upperclassmen,” Batarseh said.
“Kids are going to be busy no matter what,” she said. “The competitiveness of students who are competitive is going to stay the same.”
—By Héloïse Schep
Originally published in the May 28 edition of the Octagon.