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November 26, 2014

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Budget cuts force schools to drop block scheduling

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Tiffany Brown

Students change classes at Rancho High School, where Principal Bob Chesto implemented block class scheduling four years ago.

All but a few schools in the Clark County School District will give up the eight-period schedule that has allowed students to accumulate more credits in a shorter amount of time.

The schedule, called block scheduling, was being used at nearly half of all high schools in the district in lieu of a traditional six-period schedule. Students would alternate two blocks of four 90-minute periods every other day to fit all of the classes in.

In December, Superintendent Walt Rulffes and the School Board decided to cut the $11 million annual expense from the budget to comply with state-mandated budget cuts of $120 million per year for the next two. However, they gave schools the option of keeping the schedule, or a modified version, if they could figure out how to do it without the additional cost, the School Board decided.

Block scheduling requires an extra 10 percent of teachers for each school, meaning a school that should be staffed with 100 teachers would be staffed with 110. The schools now will lose those extra positions.

At Centennial High School in northwest Las Vegas, Principal Trent Day plans to keep block scheduling by increasing class sizes by four to six students apiece and giving up some support staff, he said.

Day said he made the decision after talking to parents, teachers, students and the community, and he stressed the decision was the right choice for Centennial, but it may not be for other schools.

"This best fits the Centennial community, but some of the dynamics may not fit for other schools," he said.

A key factor in the decision was the effect block scheduling has had on the school's graduation rate, Day said. Since block scheduling was implemented three years ago, the rate has jumped from 60 percent the first year to 84 percent last year, he said.

Several principals said that block scheduling helps graduation rates by allowing students extra chances to make up failed classes.

On a traditional schedule, students may take up to 48 semesters of classes. On a block schedule, though, that number goes up to 64 semesters.

"On block, they have 64 opportunities to pass 45 required classes instead of only 48 opportunities," Principal Dan Phillips of Palo Verde High School said. "A kid can afford to have a bad semester. They can afford to have a tragedy at home."

Palo Verde was the first school to implement block nearly 10 years ago, but it will be reverting to six-period schedule beginning next fall.

"Now, if a kid loses a semester, they're always going to be behind. They're going to have to take summer school or online correspondence or virtual high school," Phillips said.

On the other side, college-bound students will lose a chance to build their academic resumes, he said.

"Our students are losing probably the most enriched curriculum in Clark County," Phillips said.

Despite his concerns, he decided Palo Verde might still succeed without block scheduling. The success of Coronado and Green Valley high schools in Henderson, which are demographically similar to Palo Verde and both on a standard schedule, convinced him, Phillips said. They consistently score high on state-mandated and Advanced Placement tests.

Surveys the School District took last fall showed that parents, teachers and students who didn't have block scheduling at their schools were happy to drop the expense, while those with block scheduling felt it was important to keep.

Many of those in favor of block scheduling may have come from the northwest or the southwest regions, where every high school has it.

"We absolutely believe in and support block (scheduling)," Southwest Region Superintendent Jolene Wallace said.

Terri Janison, School Board president and representative of the north Summerlin area, said her last Parent Action Committee meeting attracted 75 parents, many of whom were upset about losing block scheduling.

Janison has been a strong voice for block scheduling at School Board meetings, partially because her constituents have shown their support, but also because she's a mother of a college-bound high school student who will be losing block scheduling next year.

"My problem is, I know they'll be fine. But do I want just a mediocre education system for my children?" Janison said. "Block scheduling provided opportunities for credit retrieval, and it gave the students at the higher end wonderful opportunities to increase their education."

For most of the Southwest and Northwest Region principals, the cost of keeping block scheduling just proved to be too high.

Phillips expects to lose nearly 20 teachers at Palo Verde next year, maybe more depending on rezoning.

Southwest Region principals in weighing their choice discovered the only way to keep block scheduling would be to increase class sizes, to as high as 40 students average in a class, Wallace said. The current district average is 32 students per class.

"As much as we love the block, it does not justify cramming kids in there," Wallace said.

One thing the principals considered was a modified block schedule, with seven periods, but the issues of high class sizes still existed, she said.

Liberty High School found a creative way to keep one aspect of block scheduling. The school will modify the six-period schedule to allow students to have longer class periods three days a week. They still will take only six classes per semester.

Classes will meet in a normal schedule, with six 48-minute periods, on Mondays and Fridays. Then on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, students will attend four of their classes for longer periods each day on a rotating schedule. Mojave and Cimarron-Memorial high schools have used similar schedules.

Liberty Principal Rosalind Gibson thinks it will benefit her school.

"It's a very productive schedule," Gibson said.

Students and teachers meet at the beginning of the week to set up the rest of the week. The longer periods in the middle of the week allow for hands-on projects, such as science labs. All classes then meet again Friday to recap and tie the lessons together, Gibson said.

"I feel strongly that we did something good here," she said.

Frances Vanderploeg can be reached at 990-2660 or [email protected].

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