Muscogee County School Board hears proposal to change high school schedules

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 11, 2014 

Will vote at next Monday's meeting

By MARK RICE

mrice@ledger-enquirer.com

For the past six weeks, Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis has discussed at various venues his proposal to change the high school schedules. Monday evening, he officially submitted it to the school board during its three-plus-hour work session.

Lewis' proposal to go from an eight-period to a seven-period schedule was presented by chief academic officer Ronie Collins and secondary education director Keith Seifert.

The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at next Monday night's meeting. But the board doesn't seem to have a practical choice, because Lewis acknowledged this change is motivated by money, not academics.

Faced with needing to cut $10 million from next fiscal year's budget because of decreased state funding, Lewis has estimated the district can save $4 million to $4.5 million by changing from the eight-period schedule to seven periods because it would allow reducing the high school staff by about 15 percent. He has said he in

tends to do that through attrition and reassignments, but he can't guarantee there wouldn't be layoffs.

This year's budget is $270,596,469.

In an interview after the meeting, Lewis was asked what would happen if the board doesn't approve his proposal.

"More than likely, it would be furloughs," he said. "With 85 percent of the budget made up of personnel costs, it would have to be something involving personnel and pretty dramatic."

A furlough day saves the district between $800,000 and $1 million, Lewis said.

The proposal began last spring under interim superintendent John Phillips, who determined the district couldn't afford the eight-period schedule any longer, Collins said. So the high school principals and their leadership teams met during the past year, and Lewis, who was hired in July from Polk County, Fla., picked up the torch.

"When I came in," Lewis said, "I said, 'If we're going to have to do this, let's make it the best we can for our students.' And that's the best premise from which to work."

In Polk County, 15 of the district 18 high schools were on an eight-period schedule and switched to seven periods to save money, Lewis said. The next year, each school improved its academic performance, he said.

And the trend nationally and in Georgia also is moving away from eight periods to seven periods. The Georgia Department of Education reports that 65 percent of the state's schools are on seven-period schedules, said assistant superintendent Rebecca Braaten.

Collins noted, however, that the national research doesn't show an academic advantage for either schedule.

"You don't have to be an educator to know that it really comes down to the teacher in the classroom," Collins said.

In the proposal, the high school students would have only four periods per day: three 90-minute classes meeting every other school day and one 50-minute class meeting every school day. That will total seven courses during the academic year.

The proposed schedule also would include more common planning time for teachers and what the administration calls Increased Learning Time, or ILT, for students. Instead of providing remediation and acceleration for students after school, ILT would reserve time for those services during the school day. It also would allow students to make up missed tests, lab activities and assignments. They could learn test-taking strategies, clarify previous lessons and pursue credit recovery. ILT also could be used for activities that normally meet after school, such as clubs.

District 8 representative Beth Harris said she has heard ILT called a "glorified study hall."

"It is not a study hall," Lewis insisted.

Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 asked whether the proposal would reduce the chances to take Advanced Placement courses. Braaten said Polk County, where she worked with Lewis, increased AP enrollment by 150 percent when it changed to a seven-period schedule.

Lewis said he has been asked what would happen if the new schedule doesn't work. He replied, "Well, what if it does? What if it does? And I think it can, because I'm looking at the people in this audience, and I have every confidence in the principals that they can make this work and their teachers also can make this work on behalf of our students.

"It will not be perfect. I've never seen anything come out of the chute the first time of this kind of magnitude perfect. It's going to take time. But with the commitment and dedication and with the focus on the needs of the students, I have no doubt that the talent and commitment in this room will make that happen."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.

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