By Sierra Fang-Horvath, Maddie McDonagh, and Clara Kobashigawa; Feature Editor, Copy Editor, and News Editor Respectively
// The Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) Governing Board voted on June 1 to transition all schools in the district to a modified block schedule at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. Acalanes, Campolindo, Las Lomas, and Miramonte High Schools will move from the current 50-minute period system to a version of block schedule.
“The Board came to a pretty overwhelming consensus that the right thing was to move to a schedule that had longer instructional blocks, fewer courses in a day, and time for student-teacher collaboration,” AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson, Ed.D, said.
The modified block schedule, according to Acalanes Associate Principal Erin Pope, will be composed of one “anchor day” in which students will attend all seven classes as they do now. However, the other four days of the week will be rotating block days, with just three to four class periods per day, ranging from 75 to 90 minutes in length. As of now, there are still an array of details surrounding the new schedule that remain to be hashed out, including the length of passing periods and breaks.
The definitive schedule will ideally be ready for Board affirmation in October, according to Pope, after which staff will begin the long process of adjusting curriculum and lesson plans to the new schedule.
According to Nickerson, there will most likely be one to two weekly “tutorial/intervention” periods embedded into the new schedule. This will be a time when students can make up tests, receive extra help on assignments, and meet one-on-one with teachers. Students would be able to collaborate with teachers throughout the day and ideally be able to finish some homework.
Acalanes teacher Barbara Mochizuki believes that the intervention period will allow students to seek help in a specific subject and work on homework.
“It’s more for helping students, so it’s not quite like the study hall environment. Some people may be making up tests, others will be asking teachers for help, and some will be studying,” Mochizuki said.
The option of adopting block schedule has been under consideration since the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. A group of students, parents, teachers, and administrators formed the School Day Schedule Task Force to conduct extensive research into the various schedule-change options under consideration, including adjusting start time, incorporating intervention periods, changing the number of courses per student, and adopting block schedule. The group also visited seven different educational sites, including Piedmont, Gunn, and De La Salle High Schools, that utilize various forms of alternative schedules.
As a key member of the Task Force, Nickerson was involved in the investigation into block schedule and the benefits it could serve at Acalanes
“The Task Force put many hours into finding the optimal schedule because we have had the same schedule for a long time,” Nickerson said. “Does that mean that [the normal schedule] is the best schedule? I don’t know.”
The goals of the Task Force, as explained in their presentation to the Governing Board in May, were to analyze which schedule-changes would increase time for academic support, maintain a diverse range of electives, maximize time for teacher collaboration, promote student physical and social/emotional health, and develop more in-depth learning and engagement.
Many Acalanes teachers see innumerable benefits to adopting block schedule. The extension of period lengths, according to Pope, allows students to delve further into the curriculum.
“Block schedule allows you to do things more in depth and increase academic discourse in the classroom. Now you have more time to have a really great Socratic seminar because the bell isn’t going to ring in the middle,” Pope said.
English teacher Erik Honda also notes the benefits of block schedule to the particular subject he teaches.
“We might do less material in terms of the number of books we read, but we’ll go more in-depth, which balances that. So you read fewer books, but you examine them more thoughtfully and intellectually,” Honda said.
Other teachers, including art teacher Robert Porter, biology teacher Brendan Blake, math teacher Randall Takahashi, and history teacher Jed Morrow concur with Honda on the benefits that the longer periods of block schedule has to offer.
Another benefit for students, as noted by history teacher Bob Barter, is that seniors will be more prepared to enter a college environment, in which block schedule is normal. However, senior Gabi Joseph disagrees with this idea.
“I liked block schedule when we tested it [at the end of the 2015-2016 school year], but only because it was short-term. In the long run, I think it’s a bad decision to move to block schedule,” Joseph said. “I don’t think it would better prepare me for college.”
However, many freshman of the class of 2020, which is the first class to attend Acalanes containing students who attended Stanley Middle School after its 2015 implementation of block schedule, prefer block schedule. Freshman Georgia Karas enjoyed the block schedule at Stanley because it allowed her to focus on only three to four classes a day instead of seven.
“I like how we get a break from our classes,” Karas said. “For example, I could have a really hard class but the next day I won’t have it, so it’s refreshing to have a day off from certain classes.”
Additionally, students such as junior Niki Palamountain look forward to a change of pace.
“After only having a normal seven-period schedule, I am looking forward to trying something new,” Palamountain said. “It will be nice to only have a few classes each day and I hope it will reduce the amount of homework and stress I have.”
The hope for stress-reduction is shared by many members of the Acalanes community. They belief that block schedule will reduce students’ stress and workloads, both of which have been closely analyzed after the 2015 Challenge Success Survey revealed that Acalanes students felt extremely stressed and overworked.
“When you don’t have all your classes everyday, you’re not going to have homework in every class everyday. Just by simple math, you’re going to get a reduction in the number of assignments you have,” Pope said.
History teacher Brian Smith concurs with Pope and believes that the current schedule is too taxing on students.
“I’m a firm believer that we cram too much information into our students’ heads in one day. They are like receptacles on a conveyor belt that hits six or seven stations in a day and keep filling,” Smith said. “I don’t think it allows them enough time to process what is being taught or discussed before it is displaced by the next class and the next concept.”
However, many teachers fear that the transition to block schedule will not accommodate certain courses. Foreign language classes, for example, face the disadvantage of students being unable to speak or practice the language everyday. Spanish teacher Elizabeth Gough is very mindful of this drawback.
“There are certain things in life that you wouldn’t postpone every other day or every three days,” Gough said. “You wouldn’t say ‘don’t eat for a day’ and then eat a lot two days later, or ‘don’t sleep at all for one or two nights’ and then sleep a lot the third day. For me, foreign language is kind of like that.”
A similar concern for the performing arts classes is voiced by choir teacher Bruce Lengacher.
“I have some concerns, mostly for my beginning level students because music is a language, and one of the important things at the beginning and intermediate stages is daily practice,” Lengacher said. “My other concern is that beginning students don’t have the endurance. So singing for 75 or 85 minutes, however long the block ends up being, is not doable for them. Even with beginning band students, that’s going to be horrible.”
Also among the teachers who are on the fence about the transition to block schedule is math teacher Janice Lund.
“It will mean revising curriculum so that teachers can still get through what they’re supposed to cover with less face-to-face time, which I think will be harder for the students because they’ll have to do things on the off-days to keep involved. That’s going to be a challenge,” Lund said.
As Acalanes approaches this momentous change, the general sentiment about block schedule still appears to be split. However, Smith is one member of the community ready to greet the change head-on.
“I’m actually excited about block schedule because it’s something that I’ve wanted to move toward for a few years now,” Smith said. “I understand it will be a transition with growing pains, but just because it may be difficult at first doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.”