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Whither The Children

Sometimes, we all lose sight of the most important part of public education: the children. Housatonic Valley Regional High School is not there to provide jobs to the community. The school’s only function is the public education of children. If it was closed at the end of the year, the children could be bussed to other nearby schools, and get a better education. The towns in Region 1 would reap a financial benefit of over $1,000,000 even with the increased bussing costs. And the administrators could concentrate on improving the education in the elementary schools. Of course, many children would spend longer on a bus, except for Kent where the ride would be shorter. And some alumni would mourn its loss. But Housatonic is our school, even with all the failure.

Yet seemingly every proposed change to improve the education is met with resistance. With that in mind, please listen to the following conversation with a concerned parent on the problem of scheduling of classes. And thanks to the parent, Dennis Fallon, for reaching out with his student centered concerns.

Dennis Fallon: I … have shared my objections to the incoming schedule at three meetings and in an editorial (2 weeks ago). Our objections are – specifically – to the precise schedule that is being implemented. Beyond that, I won’t speak for our loose affiliation of parents, but I can say that I don’t object to change, in general, and am not even necessarily against introducing extended blocks if done well. We are not naive to the distinct possibility that the faculty has self-serving motives, but I can say that our opinions on the schedule were formed based on our own research before we obtained copies of the faculty’s objections. Finally, while we (we being me and my wife) appreciate the teachers – at least the ones we’ve run into in our daughters’ first year, who have been helpful and dedicated, frequently willing to take time to email responses to questions at night or on weekends – we can’t object to wanting to get the most for our tax dollars. As enrollments continue to decline, this is going to be an important issue.

I found your editorial to be thoughtful and enlightening. If you would be willing, I’d like to pick your brain about this issue. My wife and I are realists and believe in making the best of any situation. Now that "we" (concerned parents in multiple towns) have had a few opportunities to be heard, it kind of feels like it’s time to try negotiating. Thanks for your time.

Editor: … I waited to respond in order to do some homework on scheduling. From my reading, it appears that block scheduling only has issues if the teachers don’t change the way they teach. Every serious negative comparison seems to note that or to ignore it, unless I misread them. As is usual in education, many of the reports contain really bad statistics.

In any event, I really want to improve the education of our children. It is currently relatively poor at Housatonic (http://bit.ly/2o1N50T ) and has been for the 19 years I have tracked it. The best way to change that is to introduce personalized learning where each student’s needs are addressed. That requires longer class periods with the ability of the teacher to move between subgroups. That may require teacher awareness and training, at least for some teachers. And training without practice is worthless; the schedule needs to change with, not after, the training.

Dennis Fallon: … I waited to get back to you until I had a chance to read your linked post. That was interesting as well – makes me want to look further into additional (and newer) test results.

As for research into block schedules, there’s an awful lot of it out there, some contradictory and much of it inconclusive. A doctoral dissertation on the subject also mentioned that there is a lot of bad data in the studies that are out there (although the author suggested flaws from the favorable studies as well). My issue with the notion that extended blocks are needed is that plenty of other schools do far better than HVRHS without resorting to such a schedule. But I’m not automatically against extended blocks; plenty of schools do well with them. Primarily, I’m against the semester based schedule. In looking at the top ten public schools in CT (according to US News – not everyone will agree on the top ten, but they’re going to rank highly regardless), they use a variety of schedules, from 8 & 9 period traditional to full 4×4 A/B and a few in between that more closely resemble what HVRHS uses. (The top school, Weston, has 5 long blocks per day, rotating through 8 classes over 8 days). Of the ten, six of them teach 6 or more classes per day. But what they all have in common is that they teach full credit courses over the course of the full year; they don’t try to cram then into a single semester, leaving a many months gap until the subject is revisited next year. The school is starting to present draft schedules to students that illustrate big problems in the scheduling of a mixed semester and A/B schedule. Many students are unable to enroll in the classes they want. An 8th grader entering as a freshman next year has English, History, Math and an A/B block with Spanish all lumped into the first semester and then only Science and electives in the second semester. I don’t believe that it’s possible to fix these issues – each adjustment they make to resolve one conflict is going to break something else.

Anyway, it would not be difficult to change the schedule to incorporate extended blocks without resorting to semester classes. The Weston schedule (5 classes a day rotating over 8 days) sounds promising; an all A/B schedule (preferably rotating) works if even longer blocks are desired. Thanks again.

Editor: So much to answer in your post that I don’t know where to start. First, let me describe the current situation of comparative data. This year, for the first time in three years, I can again do a comparison of high schools and take out the effects of poverty and elementary schools. For this year, Housatonic is still dead last for the 80 schools studied, well behind all the others when the three subjects are combined. Our students are getting an inferior education as described (http://bit.ly/2o1N50T)

As far as comparing scheduling in Housatonic to the best schools in Connecticut, I think that lacks critical thought. Region 1 is not in the same socio-economic strata with them, e.g. Weston. Even if we could eliminate the students from North Canaan and half of Sharon to alleviate part of that problem, we would still be well below that level. (Look up Economic Reference Groups (ERG) in the Connecticut Department of Education.) At best, with those students eliminated, we are in the 5th ERG, while Weston is in the first.

As far as the list of best schools, The US News list is NOT the best high schools, as they state, but the best school systems from elementary through high school. Some high schools on their list are actually less successful, but have great elementary schools. (Simsbury). Some do a great job in high school recovering from poorer elementary schools. (Bolton). Some are standalone schools where individual students would need to be followed in order to measure growth.

I did have Weston, Wilton, and Region 18 (Lyme) on that 2013 comparison near the top. However, I studied only schools where I could follow the cohorts from middle school to high school. That eliminated Ridgefield and Greenwich among others, and would have eliminated Region 1 except that the central office gave me access to public information on the elementary schools.

As for the scheduling problem, I think that extended blocks are needed to allow personalized learning. And we need with class sizes in the 18-20 student range where peer to peer learning is optimized. Small class sizes lead to teacher dominated classes; that is part of the problem at Housatonic. Other than those two items, I don’t know which schedule is best.

However, the schedule must be built around the nature of our students; about one third of students have given up on their education (all the Ds and Fs). I realize that may mean workarounds for some students, but the administration must act for the greatest good.

Finally, we are stuck with a really bad teacher contract which limits the number of classes each teacher has to teach. And why do we still have department chairmen who don’t have to teach more courses when they no longer do teacher evaluations? And why do we even have so many department chairmen at all with enrollment declining?

Unlike you, I am willing to let a good administrator set the schedule to help the most students, and try to work around specific student objections. There is no other way to handle so much failure.

But I understand the objections of some parents with children in Housatonic. By working to solve the problem of poor teaching, we are creating a torrent of bad feeling fed by alternative facts in the press.

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