District says high school students aren’t limited

Block schedule not perfect, but accomplishing its goals, administrators say

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Midway through its second year in Douglas County high schools, the block schedule implemented in 2012-13 continues to draw mixed reviews from some parents, recent graduates and current students.

District leaders acknowledge that some principals limited the number of classes students could take during the first year of the block schedule, but said they made changes this year to ensure that scenario wasn’t repeated.

“This last year, we told (principals), ‘Let students take the classes they want to take and we’ll support them if it becomes too much of a burden,’” assistant superintendent of secondary education Dan McMinimee said. “Our direction was, ‘Don’t limit students.’”

Two schools got that additional support. Ponderosa High School received an additional $178,000 and Castle View almost $458,000 to hire more teachers.

Under the block schedule, students and teachers meet every other day for extended time periods rather than meeting every day for shorter periods. In most Douglas County schools, eight 45-minute sessions are offered one day a week, then split into two days each of four 90-minute classes the remainder of the week.

That translates into correspondingly longer off-periods, which means big spans of free time for upperclassmen, with two or three off-periods. It also drops instructional time by about 10 hours per class. Throughout a student’s high school career, that’s 240 hours — the equivalent of six work weeks.

District leaders said the change was needed to address a predicted budget shortfall that later proved inaccurate, reduce class sizes and retain electives. Because budget constraints didn’t allow DCSD to add new high school teachers, almost all were taught additional classes — six classes out of the eight periods instead of the previous five of seven.

Douglas County High School Principal Tony Kappas believes students have more advantages under the block schedule.

“I think we’re all in a better place,” he said. “We’ve been allowed to save programs and reduce our ratios in the classrooms.”

The schedule is based on freshmen and sophomores taking seven classes, juniors six and seniors five or six, Kappas said, but requests for additional classes are always considered.

“We try not to ever turn a student away based on their question or demand,” Kappas said.

Highlands Ranch High School students were not limited with the introduction of the block schedule, Principal Jerry Goings said.

“We put suggestions on what they could and couldn’t do, but we never put a limit on them,” he said. “We worked with every single kid individually to make sure their educational needs were met. It’s not the perfect system. But we were still able to operate the schools on less money.”

Students are not required to take three off-periods, but some choose to, he said.

“It does seem like our kids have more free time and our teachers have less,” Goings said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Kids are making choices, whether or not that choice is right for them. But a lot of kids do use their time in meaningful ways.”

Both principals credit their teachers for taking on additional duties.

“The one major recognition and kudos goes to the teachers,” Kappas said. “They’re most definitely working harder. But that has opened the doors of opportunity for the kids.”

Goings echoed him.

“The biggest sacrifice was on teachers,” he said. “If the money was there right now, I would come back with a derivative of what we’re doing now; I probably would look at a five-of-seven with some block like we’re doing now.”

That schedule would help teachers, he said, but added, “I’ve got to make sure my class sizes continue to be at a good level. The year before (the block schedule), they were not. I don’t having classes of 35, 36 kids was a good situation.”

Staffing and other financial problems pre-dated the current administration and impacted schools statewide,” Goings said.

“We got a little more money this year but we still are not even close to being funded at the level we were in 2007,” he said. “No school in the state of Colorado, after the economic downtown, is where it was.”