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Duluth schools explore schedule options

Duluth East High School sophomore Alex Peterson (left) helps fellow sophomore Colton Witte on a pattern during their CAD for Engineering class at the school Thursday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Alek Lake, a junior at Duluth East High School, measures bracing for the wing of a built-from-scratch radio-controlled airplane project he and his classmates, including Vinny Berarducci (right), worked on Thursday morning in their elective engineering class. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

For more than a decade, Duluth's high schools have been without a seven-period day.

A way to deal with cuts in state funding, the decision to move to six periods has long been lamented by students, parents and educators. Five years ago, Duluth's middle schools suffered the same fate.

The problems that arose from those decisions — less flexibility and course exploration, more tough choices and music program decline — led the School Board last year to direct the district to research a variety of more cost-effective scheduling options to offer kids more choices during the school day.

It's important, said board member Nora Sandstad, because a wider range of choices can make students feel more connected to school.

"That will just lead to more students continuing on and making the effort to attend, doing what they need to graduate," she said.

The work is in progress, and a handful of options will be presented to the School Board in late winter for a vote, with a potential 2019-20 rollout.

Work has included a survey that was sent to district families last spring, asking them to choose what was most important to them out of nearly 20 statements related to scheduling. More than a thousand people responded to the survey. It found that those parents and students care most about the ability to enroll in a number of electives that meet their interests and broaden their education, and scheduling that allows students to access college level courses on site.

But a seven-period day isn't the only way to meet those needs. Teachers and administrators brought together to research the idea have looked at more than two dozen ways to schedule a day, eliminating anything that was akin to fewer, more in depth courses, and focusing on schedule types that offer the most choice, in line with survey results. That includes the traditional seven-period day or a block schedule, which might mean something like four classes one day and four the next, alternating, or some days with fewer, longer classes and some days with shorter periods. And there are dozens of variations, pros and cons with each.

Top choices, said district curriculum director Mike Cary, will match what the community seems to want with district priorities.

Those include maintaining the advisory slot that all schools have called WIN, or What I Need period, along with time for teachers to meet to talk about students and instruction.

More choice, more money

Seven-period and block schedules come at a cost, because they mean hiring more teachers; some more expensive than others. Whether a new schedule can be offered is dependent on finding the money, and the district is in the midst of making emergency cuts, probably facing another deficit. That could mean it becomes part of an operating levy ask, and indeed, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said it's an item that will be considered.

Teachers hope the ultimate choice doesn't add more to their already-full workload, said Duluth Federation of Teachers president Bernie Burnham.

Reverting back to a seven-period day, for example, could take away from new things in place to help kids succeed, she said, like the WIN period and teacher meetings. (And would lengthen the school day.)

"For our secondary folks, it needs to be workable and doable and doesn't add additional things to the day," she said, because teachers aren't as effective when they are overloaded.

East High School principal Danette Seboe also sees the WIN period as something that needs to stay, because kids use it to get academic help and for enrichment.

"That chunk of time is so important," she said.

Lincoln Park Middle School reading interventionist Katie Oliver wants sixth through eighth graders to have more opportunity to explore electives such as art, music and language. Eighth graders, for example, currently choose between a language and music.

"The middle school philosophy is all about exploratory, and we don't have a lot of time in the day to offer that," Oliver said.

Denfeld High School teacher Tom Tusken said the best option would involve the least amount of change. Lengthening the school day would affect busing and the elementary day, he said. On the other hand, Duluth has lost students because its day is shorter than some surrounding schools; something parents notice, he said.

A seven-period day is attractive, he said, but there are ramifications that need to be weighed.

Extending the school day often has a ripple effect on a community, Cary said.

"People don't always understand how tightly communities are tied around a schedule," he said, considering after-school activities and jobs.

Greg Jones, an English teacher at East, sees things he likes in a seven period day, and in some type of block schedule that includes three normal days and a couple days with longer class periods. One problem he acknowledged is that missing one day of a longer class period means missing a large chunk of instruction. Also, with block scheduling, he said, it can be hard for some kids to sit in class for long periods of time. Jones noted that some schools that tried block scheduling have moved back to traditional schedules.

CW Johnson, an associate professor in the education department of the University of Minnesota Duluth, said there aren't many Northland schools using block scheduling, but it's a scheduling style that has been around for years.

The various types of block scheduling allow more in-depth study because of longer class periods, and work well with sciences that have lab sections, art classes and anything reading and writing-related, where extra time allows for deeper dives.

Traditional class periods that meet daily, Johnson said, are better for mathematics and foreign languages; where daily instruction is more conducive to learning.

It's easier, too, he said, to offer more advanced courses in a traditional schedule, but "a block can be a really rich way to investigate a content area."

There are logistical challenges to both styles, he said, but there are ways to combine the two to get the best of both worlds.

"The exciting part is our district listened to the survey," said Ordean East counselor Sarah Seglem.

"They listened to what students, parents and staff are saying ... it fits the developmental need (of middle schoolers) to have more options."