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Schools Find Learning Is All in the Timing

The hallways of the largest high school in Massachusetts are eerily silent. Only the sounds of students at work and footsteps of an occasional passerby disturb the calm.

For Brockton High, a busy school serving 3,600 students, this is tantamount to a mini-miracle.

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Given a state mandate to increase instructional time, the urban high school 20 miles south of Boston joined thousands of other schools around the country experimenting with "block" scheduling.

Class periods have expanded from 40 to 66 minutes, and some year-long classes are now semester-long sessions. Students face five periods a day instead of seven. Teachers carry three classes, not five. And over four years of high school, the number of minutes in the classroom has grown 27 percent.

The result? "I love the 66-minute block," says English department head Paul Laurino. "It's all positive for me. Given all the bureaucratic steps you need to take and the time it takes to introduce a lesson, this length of time works much better. I feel like I'm able to complete more objectives and get around to more students."

In the perennial race against time, schools have become the latest front runner. With rising expectations for student achievement, heightened social and academic needs, and overcrowding, many schools have had to fundamentally rethink how they teach.

"For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary," stated a recent congressional report on time and learning. "The rule, only rarely voiced, is simple: learn what you can in the time we make available."

But that rigidity is crumbling. Over the past 10 years, the options have ballooned - from longer class sessions and year-round schooling to after-school programs, full-day kindergarten, and in some states, a four-day school week.

More than half of American high schools have adopted or are considering a schedule that offers longer class blocks, like those at Brockton High, according to a survey by retired University of Virginia Prof. Robert Canady.

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The longer class hours are designed to maximize instructional time in a day, allowing students to focus on one subject and giving teachers the opportunity to experiment with different approaches.

School's on for summer

Year-round schooling, once considered only a trademark of California living, is spreading east. The number of schools reorganizing the 180-day calendar into 9- to 12-week sessions, interspersed with three- to six-week vacations, has grown 735 percent since 1980, according to the National Association for Year-Round Education in San Diego, Calif. There are now 2,681 public and 71 private year-round schools.

Though most schools choose the year-round option to relieve overcrowding, a growing chorus of advocates say that year-round schedules, and the bulwark they provide against summer learning loss, are the model for the future.

"The traditional day and calendar were designed for economic reasons, to have help around the farm," says Charles Ballinger, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education. "It served the economic needs of adults, not the learning needs of children."

Now, in an information age, academic requirements and the expectation of what students should know have grown exponentially. In the past 10 years alone, many states have increased graduation requirements, and many have adopted do-or-die graduation exams. Add to that the time needed for instruction in computers and technology, and the day simply can't be sliced into enough pieces.

"There is a stark realization that we are trying to teach a great deal more in the same period of time," says Gary Marx, of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Despite progress in adjusting to these realities, educators pushing for alternative scheduling say the changes are not as widespread as they want. Rigid school practices, parents' schedules, tightly worded teacher contracts and fixed bus schedules create obstacles to fundamental change.

Urban educators in particular stress the limitations of shifting a schedule, saying it is only one half of a much larger equation. "I would love to snap my fingers and say this will change everything," says Bob Jarvis, principal of Brockton High. "But we're still battling poor home situations, parents who weren't successful in schools and don't have a track record of supporting schools. Those things are just important as money and changing the schedule."

Good reviews from teachers

Some changes, though, are getting strong reviews from Brockton's teachers. Many say the block has forced them to move beyond lecturing and experiment with group work, individualized teaching, and class projects. They say the longer classes help students focus and complete lessons, and reduce discipline problems. Some teachers also say the new schedule gives them more time to prepare for class.

Having to restructure their year-long classes to fit into a semester that is only 83 percent as long is the major drawback that is frequently cited.

Students say the day goes faster under the block, they are less stressed, and they learn more. Some complain, though, that they feel cheated when their year-long classes are truncated, and add that 66 minutes with a bad teacher is almost more than they can bear.

On balance, though, most say they prefer the new schedule. "It gives the teachers more time to teach," says Scott Raerdon, a junior. "In the past, you just got a little bit of each subject, this is more in-depth and less stressful for us."

His classmates agree.

"Last year we had it in our minds it would be horrible, the worst year," says Tracy Pizzi, also a junior. "It hasn't turned out that way at all."

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