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Should Duluth middle, high schools bring back a seventh class period?

Gwyn Morgenstern plays the piece "Dragonhunter" on her viola in orchestra class at Ordean East Middle School on Wednesday morning. Photos by Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Eighth graders in Ordean East's industrial tech class, an elective, work with focus on their projects that include dog bowl tables (left), cutting boards and phone speaker holders. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Aerospace physics, orchestra, classical line cooking, engineering research and design.

Those courses are among the Duluth school district's offerings, which have more depth than most schools and districts in the region. But a cost-saving measure decided in 2004 for high schools and 2012 for middle schools left kids with only six periods, meaning one less period in the day to take advantage of that rich variety of courses.

It's a fact School Board members has lamented for years, and one of the things it hears about most from families who want the seventh period returned.

As the district looks for ways to offer more parity between its western and eastern secondary schools — which have disproportionate enrollments — the drum beat for a seventh period has grown stronger. School Board member Alanna Oswald wants to see western Duluth's Denfeld High School and Lincoln Park Middle School with seven periods starting in the fall, and the eastern middle and high schools as funding allows.

Acknowledging the estimated $2.6 million cost to staff all four schools for an extra period, and that it would at least double the anticipated budget deficit, she hopes starting with two schools moves the district in the right direction.

"We know what the status quo gets us. It doesn't get us any more students," Oswald said, referring to the district's enrollment, in steady decline for decades because of demographics, the effects of the long-range facilities plan and an increase in competing options.

District administrators are in agreement that students need more chances to explore courses. Work is already underway to research how to restructure the day in the middle and high schools in a way that won't cost as much money. But officials say time is needed to do it right, involve the community and ensure the needs of every type of student are met.

"It doesn't have to be a seven-period day," said Lincoln Park Middle School principal Brenda Vatthauer.

That type of schedule is familiar, and is what most people know, she said, "but my fear is if seven periods came back, we might still not be addressing the needs. And that's the priority."

Across the country, a variety of schedules are used, including a mix of short and long class periods, block scheduling, trimesters and alternating days.

"The seven-period day was an old-school model," said assistant superintendent Amy Starzecki. Now in Duluth schools, new practices are built into the day that help teachers improve instruction and offer interventions to better meet the needs of kids.

"If those are still our priorities, it's difficult to do that in a seven period day model," she said. "If we can be more creative and make sure those are still front and center and fit within our day, that for me is a priority. Those are important practices and are good for kids."

Eighth grader Robert Feiring uses a router to work on the cutting board he's making in industrial tech class at Ordean East.

More time, more benefits

There is no denying the benefits of a day that allows kids to take as many elective courses as they can, or offers time to improve in difficult areas.

And right now, eighth-graders, for example, only get one elective choice instead of two. They choose between a music course, art, industrial technology, a foreign language and family and consumer science.

Ordean East Middle School eighth-grader Hannah Williams, working on her "lazy Susan" project Thursday in her elective of industrial technology, would have liked to also take German.

"I wish that I could have had another choice," she said. "It gives you more of a chance to try new things."

In high school, one less period leaves a lot less wiggle room for exploring new areas, taking high-level or intervention courses or a course a struggling student might look forward to amid the pressure of tough core classes.

"We know six periods in a day is a schedule that does not afford our students all the opportunities they need to be the most successful," said Denfeld principal Tonya Sconiers.

She's a proponent of a block schedule: Students could take between six and eight alternating courses, depending on whether they need extra support or enrichment. The seven-period day, she said, would offer time to help struggling students and give those who want more options that chance. But other options might offer more benefits to students, she said.

There are schools across the state and country with similar demographics to Lincoln Park, Vatthauer said.

"We need to invest some time and look at what's working in other schools," she said, to see what could work in each Duluth school.

Ordean East 8th graders Jack Hilken (left) and Owen Gross coat the phone speaker holders they made with polyurethane.

The effects

A host of complications come with reinstating the seventh period this fall, whether it's one or all of the secondary schools. To pay for any of it, class size would probably increase, said Superintendent Bill Gronseth.

Most student registration is already done and staffing plans are underway. New teachers with the necessary licensure would need to be hired quickly, at the same time the state faces a teacher shortage, especially in the areas of special education, sciences and math. The teachers contract, currently under negotiation, would need to be altered in several areas and would need agreement from teachers to make such changes.

The district's busing schedule also would need to be reworked, because the time of day would be lengthened. Graduation requirements, and the legality of offering one school seven periods and not the other, would need to be considered along with how each school is funded, as more general per-pupil aid would go to the schools with seven periods.

How the various schools offer student interventions would need to be addressed, because a seventh period would mean the relatively new "what I need" slot sandwiched into the day would disappear. The time is used for kids to seek help or enrichment.

"It's been a phenomenal shift in how we can provide support," said Ordean East principal Gina Kleive, for kids who need pre- or re-teaching and kids who need passion projects or want to explore a subject further.

Kleive, too, wants middle school kids to have more opportunity to explore, and said the middle school philosophy is all about that. But a year to find and roll out the best model with a start date of at least fall of 2018 makes more sense, she said.

"We want to set our kids and staff up for success," she said. "Saying we are just going to do it and make it happen in September makes me anxious."

An urgency

Denfeld teacher Tom Tusken has also been an assistant principal and dean at the school. He said depending on the impact to the district's budget, a seventh period at Denfeld next fall would help the school position itself better marketing-wise.

"We don't have a lot of time to wait for things to happen," he said, noting the school loses students to the neighboring districts of Wrenshall, Proctor and Hermantown.

Denfeld has more competition for students than East because of its geography, he said, and whether it's a seventh period or another type of restructuring, an urgency exists to provide equity among schools.

"We're not trying to take resources from other schools; it's about packaging ourselves uniquely to best meet the needs of kids," Tusken said.

Congdon Elementary parent Sarah McCourtney said offering seven periods is a matter of standards.

"Duluth has so much to offer as a community, that it pains me that our schools are not up to that high standard," she said. "Other area schools have this."

Oswald isn't married to the seven-period day, and could support a seven-credit day, she said.

"Every one of our surrounding schools offers seven credits in a day, and it's hard to attract people to come back to our schools to take advantage of the wide diversity of courses when they have to choose to get less education overall in order to get them," she said.

Board member Annie Harala said a quick fix would be a Band-aid, when it's better for kids and teachers to have a researched plan. She's looking at what can more easily be done next year, like allowing Denfeld kids to take East courses electronically, when there aren't enough students for a full Denfeld class.

"It's really easy to speak quickly, but we need to act pragmatically," she said.

If it's decided down the road that a seven-period day is the best option, as opposed to next fall, district residents could be asked to pay for it via an operational levy request. The current levy expires at the end of 2018.