High School 7 + 1 Schedule Proposal Tabled for Now

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The Albemarle County School Board again considered the implementation of a “7+1” academic schedule for all county high schools at its December 14 meeting, but agreed not to move forward with the plan in its present state. The proposed schedule envisioned that one class period of the eight that students currently have available would be a designated “flex block,” open for all students and teachers at the same time, that could be used as a study hall, intervention or enrichment period, teacher training period, or block of time for retaking assessments.

Jay Thomas, executive director of secondary education, originally presented the potential change at the board’s November 9 meeting and was asked to return with updated survey data about the 7+1 schedule from both students and faculty. At the December meeting, Thomas reported on surveys conducted during the first week of December concurrent with a push by principals and staff to fully describe the proposed changes to all stakeholders. 

The results showed that while teachers generally preferred a 7+1 schedule to the current 8-class schedule (49% to 35%), students preferred to keep the current 8-class schedule (48% to 19%). The students said that a 7+1 schedule would be significantly less likely to allow them to fulfill their diploma goal, explore their interests, and prepare for post-high school experiences. 

Albemarle High School math and engineering academy student Finnegan Driscoll, who participates in drama, choir, and student council—all of which are separate elective classes—spoke at the meeting against the proposal. “The department that will suffer the most [under 7+1] will be the arts department,” said Driscoll. “Art students will be forced to drop an elective, making that decision of arts versus academics. The arts allow for a creative outlet for students that is much needed, helping with mental health, stress, and giving students a sense of belonging at school.” Following the presentation, board members asked questions of the high school principals who were in attendance, exploring the potential for a middle path. 

“I think maybe 100% of the letters we’ve received have been about preserving the electives and preserving that flexibility for students [in favor of retaining an 8-class schedule],” said board member Kate Acuff. “The argument I would like to hear, in addition to improving the workload for teachers, is can we tease out the academic impact of having a reduced course load [under 7+1]? We’ve heard a lot of passionate advocacy from our students, but I wonder who we’re not hearing from. It’s sort of a sticky wicket—how do we define our thriving students? Is it those who are taking, you know, pottery and extra music classes, or is it those who are connecting more with teachers, or all of the above?”

“Do you have suggestions on ways to address the problems and have better connectivity that don’t upend the schedule and maybe cut electives from some students who want them?” asked board member Ellen Osborne of the principals. Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) Principal Jennifer Sublette shared some ideas that she admitted were “wildly expensive” but that could potentially accomplish those goals without reducing student choice, such as reducing teaching loads without imposing the mandatory flex block.

“If kids want eight [classes] and teachers want five, then if you teach five of eight, what does that extra block look like where you could pull and work with kids and collaborate?” said Sublette. She pointed out the substantial work teachers do in the summer to prepare courses, and the number of teachers who currently teach six out of eight blocks who have moved from two class preps to three. “It’s an intense amount of work in addition to the family communication with students, and some of our policies that have been beneficial to students have really added to the workload, like the grading and revision and retake policies. We joke that teachers teach six of eight but grade twelve of eight.”

Board member Rebecca Berlin said that for significant changes like this, the division should collect student, parent, and teacher input from the beginning. “I feel like it came too late,” she said, “we can’t do it at the end. I’ve been out at schools and talking with students who wanted to understand [the potential schedule change] better, and I don’t think they really understood what they were answering on the survey questions. We’ve heard very strong voices on the question of electives, which makes me so happy, because students need music and art and time to explore those things before they have to make difficult work/life/college choices. So that’s my hesitation—what other options can we put into the minds of our 14- to 18-year-olds?”

Board member Ellen Osborne, herself an artist, agreed. “One of the [proposed] reasons for doing this it to alleviate the amount of stress on students,” she said. “Conversely, I would say that if you give students more art and music and drama, they will build within themselves the tools to deal with stress the rest of their lives.”

Albemarle High School Principal Darah Bonham suggested more creativity in course offerings for students. “That can mean different places, different times, different opportunities, different schedules for teachers,” he said. “We try to do some things at Albemarle now that are night-school related. So how do we encompass some of that, too, so that the delivery model of everything isn’t always in the bricks and the mortar of the seventh or the eighth [block], to figure out how we could be flexible to [address] both the student side for choice but also the teacher side for potential relief?”

School Board student representative Opal Kendall noted that the peer tutoring program at WAHS, which helps reduce teacher workloads in a six of eight schedule, would be effectively nullified under a 7+1 schedule as the program pulls most of its students for tutoring during Freshman Seminar and study halls. Center One director Jeff Prillaman said that under the 7+1 proposal, class size would increase. “Say I have six classes of 20 students, that’s 120 students,” said Prillaman. “If I go to five classes with the same number of students, now I have 24 in each class. Honors and AP classes of 25 or 26 might have to balloon up to 32 or 33, or you might have to hire more teachers to handle the overload.”

Though Board Chair Judy Le allowed for the proposal’s potential benefits, she was not ready to take the plunge. “I don’t think that people understand it,” she said. “I certainly don’t understand what exactly it would look like, what the plus one means. Does that mean that the peer tutoring would be nullified? I don’t think that that’s made clear enough right now to me. It’s very possible that this could be something that is helpful in various ways, but I just don’t know that.”

“I’m still generally favorable [to the change],” said Acuff. “But I would be more interested in tabling it for some more thought about the impacts. And I think if we would go in that direction, we need to do a much better job in messaging, because I think there is an enormous amount of confusion.”

Superintendent Matt Haas was also in favor of the 7+1 schedule, but conceded that the timing was not right. “I do know that most of the administrators I’ve talked to would like to see something different to diminish the stress levels of students and staff, but recommending something that really feels like turning everything on its head is not a good idea. What I’ve been hearing from board members is a desire to slow the roll … but this seems like the beginning of a conversation, not the end. We’ve got to do something. I don’t think it’s this right now, but this will stir us to get to the point where we can be creative in our problem solving.” 

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