School Board to Decide Whether 7 + 1 > 8

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In an effort to reduce stress levels among high school teachers and students, Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) is considering adopting a “7+1” academic schedule to replace its current eight-period schedule for all county high schools. Also referred to as a “seven academic” schedule, the concept has been bandied about for more than five years and typically garners a roughly 50-50 split in support among both students and teachers. A recent push by school division officials to address the proposal will culminate in a decision on whether or not to adopt the schedule change for the 2024-25 school year at the School Board’s December meeting.

High school students currently take eight courses per year in an A-B alternating schedule, attending four 80-85 minute classes one day and four others the next, so that all eight are completed over two school days. (Each school also offers an additional 30-40 minute “intervention” period every day for students to receive extra help as needed.) The proposed 7+1 schedule would convert one class (or block) into a mandatory “flex” period, and all teachers and students would have that same block open. 

Slide from the ACPS Seven Academic Schedule presentation to the School Board on November 9.

The flex period would serve as a kind of multi-purpose study hall during which students could seek help from teachers, retake tests, gather in clubs, or participate in enrichment activities, even as the current intervention period remains in place. According to division administrators, the “+1” would provide crucial mental health support to the entire high school population.

“Right now, high school teachers teach ‘six of eight’ class periods (with two planning periods), and they are also available to students during the regular intervention time,” said Jay Thomas, ACPS’s Director of Secondary Education. “Teachers are really stressed right now, as their planning periods are often taken up with required meetings and trainings, and so they don’t have a lot of time. The Bellwether (instructional audit) report stresses the need to increase rigor, and teachers say they can do that by reducing their stress.” Under the 7+1 schedule, teachers would teach ‘five of seven’ academic periods (retaining the two planning periods) and would supervise a set of fifteen or so students during the (+1) flex block.

Slide from the ACPS Seven Academic Schedule presentation to the School Board on November 9.

Division officials say the original move up to the current eight-period schedule happened abruptly in 2010-11 when the School Board was under budget pressure to reduce costs, so the proposed switch can be viewed as righting a historic wrong. “Fourteen years ago, the board decided—overnight and without public input, without school input—to move to a four-by-four to save money,” said Thomas. “They never saved the money. What they did is they got every high school teacher teaching an extra class for free. So, the biggest benefit [of changing back to seven academic periods] that I see from a teacher perspective is the reduction of that extra class presentation and the increase in built-in time they have with students to go deeper into things to help them.”

Concerns About Student Choice

While some teachers agree that the move would relieve their own stress and improve student outcomes, others think that neither the plan nor its potential knock-on effects have been sufficiently examined or explained. Monticello High School band director Michael Strickler spoke during the public comment period at the November 9 School Board meeting where the 7+1 schedule was presented. He urged the board not to implement “this poorly designed schedule change.”

“I’m concerned with the lack of student elective choice and scheduling that will come from this change,” said Strickler. “This will cause many courses to not be offered in our schools, specifically [Career and Technical Education] classes that have hard caps on student enrollment, and performing arts classes where teachers like myself teach six distinct preps that we’ll have to drop to five, therefore eliminating an elective course offering. [The 7+1] schedule will drop the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades down to one elective each year, meaning that we’ll have a system in which students cannot achieve high levels of specialization in electives because of ACPS’ mandated non-curricular class time.”

Slide from the ACPS Seven Academic Schedule presentation to the School Board on November 9.

In a subsequent interview, Strickler also suggested that the plan is not the panacea for teachers that many believe. “If the administration could tell me that I’ll teach five classes with three planning periods, then yes, I would be 100% behind this change,” he said. “But what they’re saying is, ‘You’ll teach one less class but you’ll still be responsible for a group of students for an entire [additional] period.’ The new block is supposed to take care of seven or eight different things—teacher planning for required trainings, student enrichment, remediation [and test retakes], clubs, and somehow even some electives can fit in there. They say it’ll work out fine, but they don’t say how.”

The switch will present logistical challenges, especially as the division encourages students to move between existing high schools and new high school centers, internships, and career learning locations where they might not be able to take advantage of their home school’s flex period. The vaunted Freshman Seminar, a required full-year class launched in 2018 with the aim of helping first-year high schoolers discover their academic passions and talents, will be relegated to the flex block and significantly reduced in scope. Teachers who are assigned freshman students in their flex period will presumably be responsible for presenting seminar content during that time.

“Maybe we’ll re-envision Freshman Seminar altogether and just bring back the transition piece along with the social-emotional piece,” said Thomas. “And maybe it’s not a class [but rather] a series of experiences the freshmen do in their first couple of weeks. I think we have a lot of flexibility with that.” 

Vernon Liechti, an Albemarle High School teacher and president of the Albemarle Education Association, a group which has been advocating for the School Board to allow ACPS employees to collectively bargain, said his sense is that teachers are divided on the 7+1 plan. “Based on talking to people in my building, the teachers who were here 15 years ago definitely want to go back to that plan, but the electives teachers worry that their programs won’t be able to maintain their student participation rates or to grow,” said Liechti. “For me, it comes down to this—if the division wants to keep [an 8-class schedule], okay, but then we’d like our compensation for that extra prep that we never received.”

Staff Analysis of 7+1 Plan

The ACPS Office of Strategic Planning staff produced a study of the viability of the proposed schedule in the fall of 2022. The report presented the results of surveys of students’ and teachers’ opinions of the plan showing splits among each group. Using weighted scores where respondents expressed their opinion on a 7-point scale in which 4 meant no preference, core teachers slightly preferred the 7+1 schedule (4.5) and electives teachers leaned toward keeping the current schedule (3.77). 

While students said that a schedule that allows them to meet with teachers, complete make-up work, and pursue interests such as clubs and intramural sports was “very important” to them, more than 50% said that moving to a 7+1 schedule would either have no effect on students’ academic mental health or would make it worse, and only 16% said it would improve their mental health a lot.

The report also studied the proposal’s impact on class size, and said that for staff to move to teaching five academic classes instead of six while remaining budget neutral, class sizes would increase. Using an example of the 230 sections of high school English currently taught across the division, enrolling a total of 4,215 students, the report calculated that average class size would have to increase by 4 students per class, from 18 to 22. Thomas said that those increases could be managed within the master schedule that each school arranges, and that the release of Freshman Seminar teachers from those duties would ameliorate the class size impact.

Jennifer Sublette, Western Albemarle High School Principal. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

A central question with the 7+1 schedule is how students will benefit beyond the flexibility they already have with a daily intervention period and optional study halls. Thomas’ presentation to the School Board showed, for example, that a majority of 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) are taking a study hall this year—88% of seniors are taking at least one and sometimes more than one. That means that 12%—and a higher percentage at the other two high schools and in lower grades—prefer the option to take a full schedule including the attendant elective choices it provides. 

Why, then, require a study hall for every student? The school division division’s answer is that the flex block must be open for all students and teachers at the same time, allowing for coordinated activities such as remediation and enrichment. At least in part, the need for a dedicated open block seems to be a consequence of the division’s own post-pandemic policy of allowing students to take and re-take assessments as often as they wish, which requires both extra time and teacher availability.

WAHS principal Jennifer Sublette described trying to balance student needs with the 7+1 modification. “There is a subset of students who might be really trying to load up [on classes] as much as they can,” she said, “and we have to be creative to help support them and not discount that at all. But we also need to build a structure that’s healthy and sustainable for the larger group. Our Warrior [intervention] period is only 35 minutes, and kids need more time because of some of the changes in the grading and re-take policies. Many of our assessments, especially in our AP classes, are longer than that, so if we have a block that better matches how long they really need, that’s super helpful.”

Sublette said she plans to get a jump on planning for the change. “I’ve told my teachers, if we go to 7+1, the first thing we’ll do is create a work team that starts designing now what that block looks like,” she said. “We’ll map it out—how do we organize the kids, what are the ways we can create space and time for teachers to work with small groups versus large groups? That kind of design work is the fun of building a high school schedule.”

Ultimately, the division staff who wrote last year’s report advised against implementing the 7+1 schedule. They instead suggested “monitoring the class of 2026 [this year’s sophomores] to determine the effects of changes already implemented—including the removal of weighted grades, the cap on AP courses, the introduction of career learning communities, and the alignment of high school schedules—on student success and academic mental health.” Monticello’s Strickler similarly advocates for a “pause.”

ay Thomas, ACPS Director of Secondary Education, speaking at the November 9 School Board meeting. Photo: ACPS.

“We need modern, up-to-date data before jumping into such a drastic change,” said Strickler. “Our current remediation enrichment programs, like Mustang Morning at Monticello, have the potential to work better than throwing out the baby with the bathwater by creating an entirely new schedule.” 

At its December 14 meeting, the School Board will hear the results of new teacher and student surveys that were taken during the week after Thanksgiving break. They then will decide whether to implement, postpone, or reject the 7+1 schedule for all county high schools. 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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