At Thursday evening’s (Feb. 9) Board of Education meeting, school administrators confirmed for the Board members what they’d told Middlebrook School staff and families earlier this week — they have opted to step back from a proposed 88-minute class A/B block schedule change after much feedback opposing it.

Instead, Superintendent Kevin Smith said the middle school will move to a schedule that incorporates 60-minute daily academic classes and 40-minute STRIDE classes, and still accomplishes most of the goals the district had sought to meet with its initial block schedule plan.

Those goals include addressing the need for more math instructional time, creating an opportunity for a new STEM class, integrating reading and writing instruction, maintaining the team base model, and slowing down the pace of the day for students’ social and emotional well-being.

However, the district would not be able to meet one original goal — reducing the “forced choice” faced by students with special needs and intervention plans. Currently those students are pulled out of STRIDE applied and fine arts (music, physical education, art, etc.) and world language classes to receive more individualized academic instruction. The newer 60-minute schedule won’t change that.

According to Smith, the district still intends to integrate reading and writing instruction into one English language arts (ELA) class. He pointed to other districts that currently combine the two subjects into one class and said that nothing in the data suggests keeping the subjects separate is better than combining them in terms of improved performance.

Despite moving away from the A/B block, Smith acknowledged the new proposal would also lead to a reduction in staffing, with the number of English language arts teachers being cut from 18 to 9. He said the decision was not being made to meet the needs of the budget but rather was an educational decision that would result in dollar savings in the form of reduced full-time equivalent positions.

Middlebrook Principal Jory Higgins said that he’s had open communication with the school’s staff and and that there has been “overwhelming interest” in the 60-minute academic class model.

He added that his administrative team is working closely with all staff members who want to be involved as the schedule is finalized in the coming weeks. He has also invited parents to join the conversation and will hold a series of meetings to engage with both parents and staff. The Thursday, Feb. 16 PTA meeting will be one such prime opportunity for family input, and Higgins promised there will be several others.

He also said he’s already gotten positive feedback from both parents and staff about the decision to retreat from the 88-minute block schedule proposal.

“I received an awful lot of feedback from parents through email thanking me for this step and moving in this direction. Staff had a very similar reaction too, saying that they were very positive and looking forward,” Higgins said, adding that they’ve begun looking at specific models for the 60-minute schedule and already getting direct staff input through a Google form.

The new schedule model will still allow the currently separate data and statistics class back into the math curriculum, and administrators intend to move forward with creating a new STEM STRIDE class.

With that change affecting one teacher, in concert with the changes to ELA impacting nine teachers, Smith outlined the staffing reduction contained in his FY 2024 budget proposal.

“I assumed a reduction of seven FTE — there are two FTE that I’m hanging onto in that budget. One of the questions that came up is [Middlebrook administrators] were looking at the 60 minutes around world language. The concern is specifically around having enough FTE to cover the French classes, the way they’re distributed across the schedule. So if that’s the case, then we might need it to feed a little of that FTE to cover that,” Smith said. 

Higgins explained that world language classes will take some additional creative effort to work into the 60-minute class schedule, given that some teachers work across teams.

“You’ve got folks that need to be in two places at once and that’s where the FTE impact is,” he said. 

BOE Chair Ruth DeLuca encouraged the administrators to have a “robust plan” for completing and implementing the schedule change. “Even though we do have the break coming up, getting as much done before the break, as much parent meetings as we can, as much teacher involvement and staff work as we can, to get us to a point that when we come back from break, we have a pretty good understanding of where we are and where we can go or not go.”

Higgins said he shares that sense of urgency with the expectation that he’ll make that turnaround happen.

He also hopes to work out a way to pilot the new schedule as it comes together.

In the meantime Assistant Superintendent Chuck Smith confirmed that the work to combine the reading and writing curriculum is happening, including consulting with Teachers College. He added that the increased class time could present more opportunities to increase reading and writing across other content areas including social studies and science. “I think that’ll perhaps alleviate some of the concerns that some of the parents expressed at our last meeting about their children getting enough time in literacy instruction,” he said.