For background on the Middlebrook schedule change debate and how we’ve produced today’s stories — including our approach to withholding the teachers’ identities — check out our Special Report introduction article.
The teachers quoted below spoke to GMW on the condition that their names would not be revealed; their identities are known and they are not anonymous to GMW.
Teacher A has been teaching for 30 years, most of them at Middlebrook. They’ve served on several scheduling committees and have been very engaged in the process.
Kids first/Age Appropriate
I belong to the union, but when I’m sitting on a committee for scheduling, I’m not thinking about the teacher contract. I’m thinking what’s good for kids and Middlebrook School in general.
The number-one reason people here tell you they’re opposed to this schedule is teachers don’t think 90-minute sessions are appropriate at this age level. No one has shown us evidence that it is. As a teacher of this grade level for 30 years, I can tell you many students will have trouble focusing for that length of time.
Cider Mill elementary school kids are in the same classroom virtually all day. Kids are so relieved to get to Middlebrook and have movement and transitions, to experience different teachers, different dynamics, where they’re not with the same kids all day long.
They finally have independence to move where they’re going by themselves. Most Middlebrook kids find a lot of success and joy in that. This long class period is going to feel like going back to elementary school to them.
We have so many kids with attention issues, especially post-Covid, and they’re still working on social skills that were interrupted.
Scheduling Committee — It was not our choice
I’ve been on every schedule committee we’ve ever had. When Maria Coleman was principal (2013-2016), they wanted us to come up with a WIN [What I Need] block, a flex period in the middle of the day to help with interventions. We met for a year looking at schedules from schools all over the DRG and beyond. We found we were doing better with the schedule we had than these other schools who had tried a WIN block. So we decided not to have a schedule change.
Every year since then, upper administration — Kevin Smith, Chuck Smith — wanted a new schedule with more time for math because the teachers needed at least 50 minutes a day, hopefully 60 to do the program we’re doing.
This is on the heels of us getting tons of pressure, post-Covid. Since we’ve been back in school, we have such a push on [improving] our test scores last year. Wilton kids scored higher last year — the highest in our DRG. Everyone was so proud of the Wilton schools and the teachers and kids for all the work they did last year to get these great test scores.
So this year, they’re saying we still need to increase math time. We created schedule after schedule, observed schedule after schedule, listened to professional development, and came up with five potential schedules — all of them had at least 50 minutes of math or more per day and met the criteria Kevin Smith was asking for. All of them were shot down.
Suddenly there’s this block schedule that the committee did not come up with. It was not one of our choices. It doesn’t help any of the scenarios that supposedly needed help. It keeps math time the same.
Now they’re going to cut an English language arts course. Every student right now takes a reading class and a writing class, each for 42 minutes a day. Now they’re combining that to one class where they’ll do reading and writing for 88 minutes every other day — literally half the amount of instruction that they’ve had before on the heels of doing so well. It makes no sense to me. I don’t know how they’re going to be able to maintain any scores or understanding in writing, especially, with that much time cut.
None of us can wrap our heads around this Skills Block. It has 90 minutes, every other day, which essentially just looks like a tutorial or a study hall, that has no structure to it that we know of.
It’s supposed to be time for our special education students and our intervention students to get services. That is what, 12% of the population? Everybody else is sitting in a room for 90 minutes every other day, essentially having time to get help if they need it, to sit there and do work. It’s ridiculous. No structured curriculum would be implemented in that at all. So we’re cutting half English language arts curriculum and introducing 90 minutes every other day of downtime for middle school kids. If anyone has ever met a middle school kid, downtime is disaster time.
We spoke with the high school staff to understand how their block schedule works. They have an 80-minute block. They could say, ‘Everybody take a 10-minute break, a 15-minute break, we’re starting up again at this time.’ And the kids leave; they go to the cafeteria or they hang out in the hallway. Which doesn’t happen in a middle school — you can’t let middle school kids just roam the hallways.
They all agreed, “The temperature comes down, everything’s a little calmer, the teachers are less stressed, the students are less stressed — but we don’t get through half the curriculum we used to get through.”
What frustrates me as someone who’s at every meeting to find solutions and help figure stuff out, is that some presentation made to the Board of Ed perhaps said this schedule has been through the scheduling committee and was shared with teachers and students, blah, blah, blah. That’s just not true. We found out about the block schedule along with the rest of the staff in December. So none of that is actually true.
We were looking at different versions of blocks — 60-minute classes versus 40-minutes. We had different variations, but this [alternating day 88-minute] block schedule was not one of them.
This is a plan for the budget
Teacher A said some options the committee talked about this year involved reducing staff FTEs.
Somewhere along the way, maybe November, we were told the upper administration decided they want one English teacher per team. We all disagreed and argued that but Jory said it’s been decided already, so let’s look at options. None of us were happy with that decision. In fact, at least two, maybe more, teachers who could potentially be losing their jobs were working on the committee — they even continued working knowing their job might not be there next year. They were that committed to the process of coming up with the best thing for our kids.
I absolutely believe this is completely a budget decision because it didn’t come out of the natural scheduling process we’ve been working on. It came out of nowhere and it was like, ‘This is it. We’re doing it, figure it out.’ They needed a million dollars and that equals 10 teachers. Let’s take ’em from Middlebrook.
[One] point of view felt by a lot of people is that if you need to cut a million dollars from the budget, do you cut the people who are closest to the students who are the teachers? Or do you cut the level up from there, which is the coaches, who have no contact time with kids at all? If it’s really a budget decision, what should go first? I agree with that, but that’s not the number-one issue with the schedule. Those are two different issues.
Staff feels this is going to get pushed through no matter what happens. Morale is really low right now. There’s people teaching that assume they don’t have a job next year. There’s angst everywhere. The feeling is this decision has been made for budgetary reasons and has nothing to do with what’s best for kids. We’ve always felt Wilton is above that. Wilton does what’s right for kids because it’s right for kids.
We have an exceptional school and an exceptional staff. Kids get a great experience at Middlebrook, and it’s the hardest age to teach. The hardest time to be a kid is being an adolescent. And we do such a good job supporting our students and making those three years pretty decent. And to have the entire budget crisis solved on the back of Middlebrook students seems wrong.
I don’t know anyone in favor of it. Clearly, we’ll do whatever our job is to do. We have to. But it’s a responsibility to speak up when you don’t think it’s good.
Not Ready for Prime Time
Teacher A: Administrators couldn’t even explain the schedule to the staff.
I definitely don’t think we’ll be ready to go to it next year.
Teachers need to be trained on how to manage a 90-minute class. We’re used to doing lessons that you wrap up and you move on to the next thing. We’re not an elementary school where you sit at your desk and work on material repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly.
Teacher B has been teaching at Middlebrook for over 20 years. They’ve served on multiple scheduling committees, curriculum review committees, long range planning committees. “Middlebrook has been a definition of my life to a certain degree,” they said.
Not Good for Kids
This is not good for kids. I don’t know a lot, but I know the kids in front of me. It’s not healthy, and that’s what concerns me.
We were misrepresented on [one] very key issue. When Kevin Smith said if it wasn’t for the job cuts, we wouldn’t like the schedule. He’s absolutely wrong — I’m focused solely on that schedule.
A 10-year-old putting in 88 minutes? The answer I got was, ‘Well, they are with the same teacher all the time down at Cider Mill and they have an hour-long math block [there].’ Yeah, an hour, not 88 minutes. I don’t mind 55, 60 minutes, even 65. But 88 minutes is insane because it’s not good practice.
If I’m seeing the kids every other day, I don’t know what’s going on with them. I saw a kid today in the hall. “Something’s wrong.” “No, nothing’s wrong, nothing’s wrong.” “I’m wrong, “Something’s wrong.” I find out what was wrong and then I was able to get the student help. But I wouldn’t have seen her today if this was an every-other-day schedule. She came back to me and was happy we were able to get her some help. The kids need us, especially at the middle school level. And then they’re not going to remember what we learned two days ago. They barely remember what we learned yesterday.
The jobs were going to be cut no matter what, and now all of a sudden it got rolled into the schedule, like it’s the schedule’s fault their jobs have to be cut. And that’s not the situation.
They had already suggested that those jobs were going to get cut under [principal] Lauren Feltz (2016-2020) because of budget. Lauren said, “We cannot sustain the numbers we have due to enrollment. You either have to cut a team or teams, or we’re the only one who has the double ELA in our DRG, so it’s going to have to be that.” That was January 2020, they were already talking then that those positions have to be cut.
The rush to implement
Why are we doing this to the schedule? Give us a year to understand what it looks like with a five-person team. Give us a year to understand what it’s going to look like with our world language teachers teaching a brand new, introduction to world language course, as well as teaching all three teams before you change the whole entire schedule and change our lives completely. If it’s not about cutting the jobs, why can’t we go on this slowly? Why are we doing in five weeks what we haven’t done in 20 years? How are you telling me it’s not tied to the budget? It feels like we’re not hearing the whole truth.
Do a seven-period schedule next year — cut out that one class and distribute those 42 minutes among the other period. Give us time to figure out what we need and what we want as a school going forward and what it looks like. So you get a little bit more time for each class each day. That was one of the proposed schedules. Jory said it doesn’t work and went on without explaining why it doesn’t actually work.
But if we slowed down, let parents have a voice in it, get kids on the committee and see what they need, get all the stakeholders involved, and then lay out something that long-term meets our needs. Maybe we end up going back to 88 minutes, maybe that happens, but not this way. It makes no sense when things aren’t even defined. The Skills Block keeps changing — they were behind closed doors this afternoon trying to figure it out.
Curriculum — this doesn’t get more math in
It doesn’t work. They’ve already told math teachers they have to start teaching curriculum the first day of school to make this work. Sixth grade is still trying to figure out where their classroom is.
They really have to combine two lessons a day, which [administration] keeps saying, ‘No, that’s not true.’ But math teachers have shown emails of how they have to combine two lessons in an 88-minute block [every other day] and you’re supposed to give them a five-minute break in the middle of it. Mathematically, that doesn’t work out. That’s less time than they have now. The high school has seven minutes between classes. This gives us two. So on a day when I have three blocks, when am I going to the bathroom? I was told, ‘Just bring your class to the bathroom. You all can go at once.’ Like, we’re all going down the hall together.
[Administration] said we’re too inflexible to understand how to teach [88 minutes]. I teach different things every day, even from what I taught last year, because I like to change things up. Plus I have different kids every year. In the six school days so far we’ve had five different schedules — last Monday we had a 50-minute fire drill, so the schedule had to be redone; Tuesday we had an assembly, so the schedule had to be redone and the guy showed up late, so it had to be redone during the day; Wednesday was flex [schedule]; … then today we had a virtual field trip that also threw the schedule off. And how are you going to have all these things next year? That won’t work either with the block schedule. You can’t tell us we’re not flexible.
The best football players in the world have coaches. I don’t have an issue with that. But I have an issue if it’s at the expense of people who work with kids directly every day. A lot of districts have coaches. I’ve benefited from it. There have been times when I’ve gotten great ideas or help. But we need the people who work with kids directly.
Teacher C has been teaching in Wilton since before the district moved sixth grade from Cider Mill to Middlebrook.
Not Good for Kids
I’m opposed to it because it’s not better for children and it’s not an improvement for students. Part of what’s not improved is there’s less time in English language arts, but there are other things that are worse about it for students than the status quo.
For middle school kids to have to sit for 88 minutes is definitely worse. That’s the main thing.
Right now STRIDE classes are spread out for every child — they have two per day and they’re spread out with no more than three academics in a row. And those academics are 44 minutes.
With the proposed schedule, the two strides would be back to back. Going into a STRIDE class and then going straight to the other STRIDE class and then sitting in three 88-minute academic classes isn’t better.
The answer I heard when I asked about it was reduced passing time is better. I don’t think we have kids writing graffiti in the halls on the way from class class. I don’t see what’s so bad about passing time. They need to get up and walk every period, there’s just nothing bad about that.
Motivated by budget cutting
It’s smoke and mirrors. The people championing the schedul change are obscuring the fact that they’re getting rid of a teacher by saying that we’re going to a block schedule, but you don’t have to.
Maybe if they object to the block schedule without objecting to getting rid of the ELA teachers, the committee could go back to the drawing board and come up with something else. That way you’d actually have more minutes for math.
Test it first
When the high school went to a block schedule, they had a test run, right? You’re putting a schedule in play without running a pilot of it.
Teacher D has been teaching for over 20 years, more than half outside of the Wilton district. They have experience teaching in a middle school block schedule.
Teaching in a Block Schedule
I taught science to sixth graders, and we had 80 minutes every other day. So what we’re talking about next year is 88 minutes every other day is sort of a similar situation.
We had some meetings with the Wilton High School teachers and a lot of what they told us about their experiences was very familiar to me. My first year teaching sixth grade, we had a standard schedule where I saw the kids every day. We taught an inquiry core curriculum, not out of a textbook. We did experiments, hands on activities every day. And was that a hustle — get everything set up, do the activity, and get cleaned up and reset for the next period. And it was a hustle.
The high school teachers told us, when you go to the block schedule, a lot of that is alleviated. And that was definitely true. After my first year teaching a regular schedule, then we went to block, and it was a lot less hustle.
However, the other thing that the high school teachers said also rang true for me — on paper they say you can do two math lessons a day but that’s just not realistic. That you’re only going to get through one-half to two-thirds of the curriculum. It’s just not going to happen. That also jibes with my experience. I was never in the same place as my colleagues at the many other middle schools in [my district].
I was never caught up with, I never got to the end of the curriculum. I never got to where they got. And it showed in the district assessments in those portions I just never got to. And this was a big item of conversation in [my district] when I was there. Very categorically and without exception, the roughly half of the schools that were on a block schedule compared to the other half of the schools that were on a regular schedule, the block schedule schools were, without exception, the lower half in terms of student performance in science. There was simply no exception to that rule.
Maybe the low per performing schools switched to the block schedule to try and compensate for their [already] low performance, and they were just the low performing schools anyway, which is possible. But this was a big topic in the science department when I was teaching in that K-8 school, which I did until around 2010.
Not Age Appropriate
One of the things the high school teams said about blocks, they are long periods for the kids but they let the kids out halfway through and the kids go into the hall, they chit chat, they get a drink of water, they go to the bathroom and they come back. I don’t know that that is advisable given the maturity level of middle school students. They definitely need a break but you can’t just let them out in the hallway to be on their own.
Right now, kids have one STRIDE class before lunch, then lunch, and then a STRIDE class after lunch. So, the most stressful part of their day is broken up with a pure social break for lunch and STRIDE classes where their social and emotional learning (SEL) needs are attended to more, like music or art where they can be expressive, where the stakes aren’t as high or they can take chances and not fail a test or whatever. That’s sort of sprinkled throughout their day, which I think is a great model.
In the Block model, the STRIDES are back to back. So if a sixth grader has strides first block, they have it the first 88 minutes of the day, and then the rest of their day is core academics. Which, for SEL purposes, may be unwise.
We do a good job with SEL at our school. My son is in middle school in [a nearby district] where I live, and we do a way better job with it at Middlebrook than is done [where I live]. It’s one of our strengths and I would hate to lose that.
From my experience, if I had students on say a Friday and then again on Tuesday, if they were absent Friday, going from Wednesday to Tuesday — forget continuity, they missed essentially two lessons and they’ve gone basically a week without my class.
A huge part of the struggle back then was homework. If you have class every day, the night before you put away your homework, the next morning you take out your homework. I can’t tell you how much of a struggle it was when kids had it every other day. And sometimes they didn’t remember if they had my class that day, especially if there was a weekend. We’re talking middle schoolers, give them an extra 24 hours to lose something, it’s gonna get lost.
And kids who are chronically absent, it’s really compounded. It makes it much, much, much, much harder for them.
I’m glad that my seventh grade child isn’t doing 88-minute periods.
Losing Colleagues who are losing jobs
A school’s like a family, and when you lose someone, it’s hard. But, if it was said like, ‘Hey, look, enrollment is declining. We just can’t justify this many teachers. We just don’t have enough kids to fill the classrooms.’ And it would suck, but I would get it. But from a benefiting-the-kids point kids, I don’t think anyone really gets it.
Morale is low in the school in part from, we’re losing friends, we’re losing family. But also because people don’t understand it. It doesn’t seem transparent. It doesn’t feel like our voices are heard or our input isn’t, it doesn’t feel like we’re part of that.
Mostly because of the pandemic, it has been a tough morale time for teachers. And we came back in September and were lauded for what we were told was this miraculous job we did with our scores last year — and this is with coming back to school last year, masked and we had even shorter 38-minute periods with mask breaks.
The way it was explained by our administration was like we pulled off the impossible. And it feels like this is a ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ situation.
Compensation for extra work
We’re going from 42-minute periods to 88-minute periods. And if you include that block that’s going from 210 minutes per day teaching periods, to 264 minutes per day teaching blocks, which is a 26% increase.
If you take 10 teachers out of the building, someone’s got to teach them. So it’s sort of being just tacked onto everyone else’s school day. This is uncompensated time. For a team teacher, that’s just gotta be like, oh my gosh, my day is getting 26% longer.
[For the Skills Block], if it’s not going to be just a study hall — which dear God, I hope it’s not — teachers need time to prep to plan, assess, look at student work. It’s it’s teaching, it’s teaching. It’s a block where we want teaching to happen.
Not Age Appropriate
It’s too long time for kids to sit, especially sixth graders. You can see them wiggling around and it is so hard to just keep them focused. They need that stimulation. They need movement. They need something that changes for them. And 90 minutes is way too long to focus, they’re just coming off their elementary years. Really. Yeah. A, a youngster in for that long
Seventh grade’s in the middle, eighth graders I feel could handle it, especially in preparation for high school. But sixth graders forget it. They’re just too clean. They need the stimulus, they need the change. This is too young of an age group.
I also don’t really know much research on it and why there’s such a big push for it. I got the earlier start times when our school kids changed to a later start. That made sense. But I don’t know about big chunks for middle school kids to have to learn a curriculum.
Not About the Job Losses
Everyone who I’ve spoken to so far really says it’s not so much about the job losses. Becaucse I know that that’s the misimpression or what’s being communicated. That the teachers are upset about this because their colleagues are going to lose their jobs. Not, the first thing people are talking about is the way that this is going to impact the kids and how this is not good for learning.
Of course it’s awful. You don’t want to lose your colleagues you’ve been working with. But the first thing is, how’s it going to work in the classroom? And it’s just not conducive for at least the younger age. But it’s not practical to have different schedules either.
Not right for this age group
Let’s just talk about sixth grade for a minute. To sit in the same class for 90 minutes, the research says that’s wrong. To have young minds, that development, for that long is just not good for them. Not to mention that we’re trying to keep kids as active and moving as much as they can be. You’re going to have them in the same room sitting for how many minutes?
For seventh, eighth, although they’re more mature, they still need that time to get out, to take a break. They need that transition time again to process and to make that break from one class to the next.
You’re essentially asking for what we would now consider six blocks of time straight through for academic instruction. Strides are where students have that time of expression, that time of freedom, that time of self exploration. Which we do a wonderful job of in Wilton, where we nurture and encourage that. Of course we have a curriculum, but in some respects, we try to go at your pace, we try to meet you where you are.
This block schedule doesn’t allow that. Kids have to sit in an academic classroom for 88-minutes times three, so 264 minutes before they can get to somewhere where they have that sense of relief and joy, I’ll call it, to just be themselves and also to be all team, to be with friends, to have that whole social part of it. This schedule is not good for kids.
You know, one of the other things, you are taking 10 trusted adults, 10 professionals, 10 experts that kids rely on out of the building. If you’re going with RIF [reduction in force] number, that’s 10 educators in the district who will be taken out of students’ lives, whether it’s affecting Middlebrook or another building, some child or children are now looking for another trusted adult.
Undefined Skills Block
You’ve heard about the lack of guidance and clarity about what the Skills Block is supposed to look like? What’s supposed to happen during that time? We still don’t know. We asked, and no one knows.There’s a lot of speculation of what it could like look like, but there’s nothing definitely to say, okay, a skills block is going to be designed for ‘this.’ The most, uh, frequent thing that I keep hearing is that it’s a time for some of our students who have IEP requirements to get services that they need.
But they may still have to choose or miss out on participating in STRIDE, because there’s no other time and they may still be pulled from music or STRIDE classes in addition to this Skills Block. So if they’re still going to be pulled from participating in these curricular things of self-expression, self-exploration, then what’s the benefit of having a Skills Block? Again, there’s no definite answer what this is going to benefit and how kids can all now participate in everything.
Morale / Budget
Everyone’s kind of walking on eggshells. There’s a hypersensitivity to, ‘um, to like, you know, uh, is it, are they, ‘Are they talking about me? Are they coming after me?’ and, ‘That department isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing there.’ There’s that type of thing now. And that’s sad because we’ve gone through bumps where we’ve had reduction in staff, and of course there’s sadness. There’s kind of fear and concern of, ‘Am I going to be next?’ But at least it was explained in the way that was understandable.
But this one here is just smoke and mirrors to pass the budget. There’s no rationale. It looks good. This is one of the times where this is packaged to the public as if we’re in agreement with it. And I think one of the earlier numbers, ‘Hey, this schedule will save 600 minutes.’ But they throw that number out there and they don’t tell the rest of the story — well, 600 minutes over the course of a year is probably like two or three minutes a day. That’s not really saving time.
The initial understanding for changing the schedule was always, we need more time for math. That was for years, we need more minutes for math. Now that this schedule is being proposed, there’s actually less time for math. I can’t figure out another reason why, aside from there’s a budgetary thing that [they] want to look good.
Don’t Knock Success
Coming off of the accolades at the beginning of the year of how well Middlebrook kids did on testing numbers. No one yet has come out to say, let’s look at what caused this. Why did our test scores go well, what did we do differently to cause this jump?
The way I look at it is we focused so much on the SEL work that we do with kids. Building a rapport, making sure that kids understood, ‘You are going to get this and we’re here to support you. We’re not pushing you to learn it all within the year, we are not drilling you on this. We are simply teaching you how to learn and to how to be problem solvers. We’re teaching you how to go at your own pace, and at the same time saying you can dig a little deeper every now and again, and it’s not gonna hurt you.’
And I think that’s what caused that [rise in test scores] to happen, that we really took the time to reassure kids that, you may not get it in a week, it may take you a month, and that’s okay because it’s middle school, it’s education, and you’re going to learn it when you learn it. And we’re going to make sure we do the best we can to guide you as you’re learning it. We’re going to show you where the goal is, but if you don’t make it to the goal, we’re still going to be there. We’;; still lift you up and celebrate you because eventually you are going to make it there.
I think that’s what really helped boost all the scores all around, that every child was hearing the same message from everyone. In the midst of the time of mask breaks, of spending time outdoors, connecting with each other, being themselves, and being reassured that they are valuable, not just a test score. You are a valuable human being and and we want to just recognize you and just treat you that way.
And what happened? I believe the kids just got to the test and were like, I’m just going to do the best I can. And it turns out the best is what we got.
Now this puts us right back in the realm of going backwards. Where now we are hammering the time of instruction and the time that kids are spending in their seats, as opposed to what’s the experience they’re having.