|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Los Angeles Times 2-25-04
Longer Classes Give Students a Chance to Focus
Is it better to have students in a particular classroom for 50 minutes or for two hours? For a growing number of high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the question is a no-brainer.
Those campuses have come to embrace what administrators call block scheduling. There are different types of block schedules but, in general, students attend three or four classes a day — like most college students — instead of the traditional seven or eight. Each class runs about two hours.
About 10 campuses in the district have adopted the idea, including Westchester and Verdugo Hills, which have had block scheduling for six years. Roosevelt High School implemented it for the 2003-04 school year, and other schools are looking into it.
More than half of high schools across the country use some form of block scheduling, according to Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers. But it seems to be less popular in California than in other states.
Block-scheduling proponents say the approach helps students achieve more in school. With fewer classes to juggle each day, they have more time to concentrate on each subject. The same is true for homework.
"It gives teachers a little more time with the students to cover what they normally wouldn't cover in a 50-minute period," said Mike Weimer, a California Federation of Teachers lobbyist.
Not everyone likes the idea, however. Some teachers and students complain that the longer classes strain youngsters' short attention spans and that the schedule can disrupt the sequence of courses over the year.
At Verdugo Hills, students have four 90-minute periods in a school day. They take the same three or four classes every day for a nine-week quarter and then switch to new classes for the next quarter. In that model, called the "4x4," students may study a particular subject in only one quarter of the school year.
Science teachers generally like the longer periods because students can conduct experiments as well as learn new lessons. Some math and foreign-language teachers, though, would rather have the same students throughout the school year for continuity of learning.
Philip Clements, a math teacher at Verdugo Hills, said he was troubled because students could choose not to take math for several quarters in a row.
"It takes time for students to learn, for this stuff to sink in," Clements said.
Students are not required to take a fourth-period class. That period is left open for sports, tutoring, or for meetings among teachers. Some students use that fourth period to make up failed classes.
"I was behind in credits, and now I'm caught up to my level," said 17-year-old Juan Acosta, a senior at Roosevelt High, which uses a similar "4x4" schedule. Taking a fourth-period class and an extra class after school last quarter will enable Acosta to graduate with his classmates.
Administrators at Westchester High chose to use an "alternate day" model that keeps students in one class for an entire semester instead of a quarter, said Principal Dana Perryman.
At Westchester, students have six different classes each semester. On Mondays, students attend all six classes for 50 minutes each. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they attend the classes they have during periods one, three and five. Wednesdays and Fridays, they attend periods two, four and six. Each period Tuesday through Friday is about an hour and 45 minutes.
The schedule might sound confusing, but Perryman said students don't have a problem with it.
"It's easy for the kids. The adults are the ones having a problem with it," Perryman said. Teachers say the longer periods improve learning.
"When you have an hour, you just get started," Perryman said. "You can do a complete lesson in two hours."
Teachers say they can spend more time with students who are having trouble with the material, and students can spend more time on group projects or in class discussions.
"I think it's fantastic. I can't understand why every school doesn't do it," said Verdugo Hills English teacher Jere Mendelsohn.
"Giving attendance, getting everyone settled. By the time you get the momentum going, the class is over," he said.
During a recent class, his students read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." Afterward, they wrote journal entries about their assessment of the reading and followed that with a class discussion.
They couldn't do all that in 50 minutes, Mendelsohn said.
"It gives you a chance to learn," said Saleh Coley, 16, a junior at Westchester High. "You have a lot of time to ask questions about things."
Saida Prince, 16, said she liked Westchester's alternate-day block schedule: "I don't have to see some teachers every day, and my homework is due every other day."
At Verdugo Hills, Principal Cheryl Dellepiane said she believed block scheduling had helped improve student attendance and test scores.
"We did not do a scientific study, so we can't say it's from our schedule, but we can't think of what else it could be," she said of the improvements.
For Verdugo Hills in 1999, the end of the first school year with block scheduling, the Academic Performance Index — a state ranking based on the results of standardized testing — was 528 points out of a possible 1,000. In 2003, it was 596.
During the 1998-99 school year, an average of 88% of students attended school daily. In the 2002-03 school year, 92%.
However, some teachers and students say a class of nearly two hours is too long.
"After an hour and 15 minutes, you're losing their attention span," said Damiek Barrow, an English and science teacher at Westchester. "Two hours long — that's longer than in college, and you're asking 14- and 15-year-olds to do that? That's asking a lot."
Westchester sophomore Derrick Smith, 16, said: "I hate block schedules. The boring classes feel like you'll never leave."
Ashley Buitrago, an 18-year-old Westchester senior, said class is good when the teacher is good.
"It's not hard when the teacher is productive, but when there's
20 minutes of free time, you sit there like 'wow,' " she said. "The
good days are great, but the hard days are horrible."
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