For years, Wilton Public Schools administrators have been trying to develop a different bell schedule at Middlebrook Middle School. More recently, various committees were formed with administrators, teachers and parents who reviewed many different schedule formats but struggled to find anything to fit the middle school model Wilton educators say is best for Middlebrook: a team-based program for the core subjects that also includes world language instruction, complemented by a variety of special classes (called STRIDE classes) in fine and performing arts, physical education and more.
Now, school officials say they’ve found a scheme that works and have proposed a “block schedule” model to the Board of Education for consideration. But not everyone believes the new scheduling framework will serve Wilton’s middle school-aged students well.
What’s more, implementing the block schedule Wilton officials devised will likely mean 9-10 teachers will lose their jobs.
The majority of Middlebrook teachers have expressed strong opposition to the new schedule, and many parents are questioning the plan also. Administrators have been holding information sessions for parents, attending PTA meetings, and talking with teachers to explain why they’ve chosen the block format.
GOOD Morning Wilton will have more on this story in the coming days. In this article, we’ll explain the basic nuts and bolts of the block schedule being proposed and report on what happened when administrators presented their plan at the BOE meeting on Dec. 15, including statements from teachers.
Choosing Block Schedule
In the 20 years Middlebrook principal Jory Higgins has worked at the school, he’s been involved in the schedule search. “The common theme throughout has been preserving the team concept, which is very important for this age group,” he said.
Higgins led the block schedule presentation to the BOE members on Dec. 15. He said Wilton is one of many schools in the tri-state area seeking new bell schedules.
“Mostly they’re looking for ways to increase teaching time or time with students. We’re facing the same issues of trying to do more without expanding a day,” he said.
One key objective was to create longer instructional periods, especially for math and English language arts (ELA); simultaneously administrators hoped to combine the two separate writing workshop and reading workshop classes into one ELA class.
Higgins added that the current scheduling committee aimed to have fewer transitions during the day in order to capture more instructional minutes, reduce travel time between classes, reduce stress by slowing things down, and allow students deeper personalized learning.
“The scheduling committee researched and reviewed multiple models… each was evaluated for effectiveness and appropriateness for our students. We laid out clear goals of what we needed to accomplish in those schedules. The AB [alternating day] block was the only schedule that checked those boxes for us without forcing us to sacrifice programs like world language and our STRIDE offerings that we see as vital to our middle school program,” Higgins said, adding, “The AB block was the only schedule where there was an agreement with the scheduling group, the leadership and the admin before presenting it to the staff.”
“All of this research and time … led us to determine that the block schedule would be the best choice,” Higgins reiterated.
How Block Schedule Works
An alternating day block schedule divides a day into four 90-minute blocks. (88 minutes plus passing time). Academic periods meet every other day. STRIDE classes are 42 minutes but students would have two STRIDEs back to back.
Full-time teachers would continue to teach five sections; STRIDE teachers would continue to teach six classes a day.
The block schedule introduces something called a “Skills Block.” It’s an element of the new schedule that has been hard for many people to figure out. Throughout the BOE presentation, administrators had difficulty providing specifics on what would happen in a Skills Block.
For the general education student population, Higgins said this daily period would provide “an opportunity for students to access their teachers as they need or as the teacher needs, as circumstances dictate. For example, they’re working on an essay [or] an assessment, or they just need to check in. … To me, that skills block is a funnel-wide open opportunity. We’ve been looking for a time to build in transdisciplinary work, passion projects, capstone opportunities, enrichment. The skills block will provide that opportunity.”
The Skills Block also builds time into the schedule for special education and intervention students to receive services, go to academic lab or do intervention work. With the current schedule, most of those students are pulled out of STRIDE classes and world language. With block scheduling, they’re not forced to choose between individualized learning and non-core classes.
“The Skills Block allows us to remove that forced choice,” Higgins said.
What administrators couldn’t define were specifics of what would happen during Skills Blocks. What would learning look like? Would it be downtime or a study hall? Would it mean more planning work for already overburdened teachers?
“I recognize that can’t be a glorified tutorial and I’m leery of adding an additional prep period for our teachers,” Higgins said.
Higgins listed the cons for the current schedule and explained why the current 41-minute classes are insufficient for optimal learning:
- students must prepare nightly for the next day’s six academic or eight-period schedule.
- although the teachers are “masterful at capitalizing on every minute of that 41 minutes,” 41-minute classes “don’t always allow for collaborative working or a deep dive or in-depth investigation of ideas, or engaging in projects.
- for teachers, 40 or so minutes of planning periods “often don’t allow them meaningful or built-in collaborative time with peers
- can be a rushed pace,
- challenge for staff to differentiate with individualized attention or dive deep into course content
- requires more time to move around the building — “We spend about 21 minutes on a regular day, just moving people around the building,” Higgins said.
He provided pros for the block schedule research
- one in three middle schools across the country use block schedules
- it lessens stress levels, not as frenetic a pace
- class order is more predictable
- students can better focus by only preparing for classes that day
- students can have confidence they’ll have time to fully engage in that class’s learning targets or objectives to achieve deeper learning and understanding of content
- more class time for learning tasks and targets, to complete tasks required through inquiry research, projects or presentations, science labs, reading independent practice, or even Socratic seminars
- teachers can introduce material model skills and have a greater opportunity for guiding student practice and for directing student collaboration within one class period, the teacher can meet with more students one-on-one or in greater depth.
- block scheduling promotes more cooperative learning, as well as more individualized or differentiated instruction
- more time to reflect and process information
- more quality social/emotional learning time
- more simple and straightforward schedule
- time to complete assignments during class, two days for students to do homework
Higgins acknowledged the cons of Block Scheduling:
- 88-minute classes have the potential for attention or engagement issues for students
- will require professional development for teachers to adjust to the new model
- some weeks, teachers will only see classes twice a week, and then they’d see them three times the next week — provided there were no weather interruptions
- will require teachers to plan effectively to cover depth and breadth of the material
- classes missed for illness or for weather could have a greater impact than on the present schedule
Higging told the BOE about concerns Middlebrook teachers have expressed over this schedule. “One is the emotional component, the idea of losing family members, colleagues they’ve worked with. That’s hard. I share that concern.”
He said they are also unsure about adapting to teaching in an 88 minute period and what the Skills Block is going to be.
As part of the professional learning to address those concerns, Higgins said the faculty would be able to work with other schools whose teachers adjusted to block scheduling — including Wilton High School teachers.
However, running a pilot before the end of this year to test the new schedule would be difficult to schedule, but Higgins said they will try to work on that possibility.
Will Block Scheduling help with Math Learning?
One primary reason the district pursued a Middlebrook schedule change for years is around mathematics, and administrators have acknowledged that the amount of time currently in the schedule is insufficient.
Trudy Denton, the district’s math curricum coordinator, spoke to how the block schedule proposal would work with the Illustrative Mathematics (IM) curriculum the school is using.
Denton explained the basic framework of how IM is taught: as a problem-based curriculum, students learn by doing the math, with a focus on independent group and whole class instruction. First students are “invited” to the math as a “warmup”; then, they do a “deep dive” to explore the material; last, students consolidate and apply, which is called “synthesis.”
“Synthesis is where the magic happens. Unfortunately, in our current schedule, we don’t have enough time to make magic,” Denton said.
Breaking down the time issue, she said IM requires about 8,000 minutes of instructional time to deliver nine units in a school year. The current schedule allows for 7,380 minutes. The proposed block schedule would provide 7,920 minutes, “which would allow us to deliver the current eight units of instruction that we entertain now,” she said.
But it’s not just about the total minutes, it’s how those minutes are used.
“More time engaging students in discourse, giving them time to grapple, giving them time to discuss with partners, collaborate with partners, come back, practice. None of those things can be achieved in a 41 minute timeframe,” she said, adding, “It’s time we allow our students to get the full benefit of this program [with] not just more time, but an arrangement of time that enables us to do the work that needs to be done.”
The developers of the IM curriculum have built a block guidance schedule because about half of the middle schools that they work with have some form of a block schedule, Denton said.
BOE member Mandi Schmauch calculated that the new alternating schedule would only increase instructional time by an extra three minutes of math per day, or six minutes every two days.
She recalled something Denton had told the board at a previous meeting. “At one point you said we need 60 consistent minutes of math a day. Now we’re going to 80 minutes every two days, I just feel like we got off of our track at some point,” she said.
“I’m not quite sure how we went from the importance of increased time in math to changing the schedule to get three minutes of math extra today. six minutes every two days. And I just don’t know how that’s going to help our ultimate goal, which was to try and get more math,” Schmauch added.
Denton replied that while a 60 minute class would be her first choice, no schedule could accomodate that without completely changing the Middlebrook team structure and delivery of STRIDE and world language instruction.
“A block schedule provides a concentrated period of time to engage in the kind of instructional routines that are necessary for students to learn math. And in this instance, I think we have to take the decision of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Denton said.
Superintendent Kevin Smith reinforced his support. “I’d take Trudi’s word to the bank [that it will] meet the demands of the curriculum.”
Combining Reading and Writing into One Class
Discussion moved to an explanation of how ELA would work going from two classes to one.
“We’re the only middle school that I’m aware of that continues to segregate reading and writing,” Smith said.
Karen Brenneke, the district’s ELA curriculum coordinator, explained why block scheduling would work for her subject matter.
She said Middlebrook teachers have felt the current workshop model isn’t sufficient for the district’s approach to ELA curriculum, what she called a “comprehensive literacy framework.”
“The comprehensive literacy framework requires 60-90 minutes to orchestrate its components — the mini lesson, small groups, independent reading or writing, word study, read aloud, shared and close reading. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning in the air. To try to do that in 41 minutes has led to teacher frustration. It’s led to student frustration,” she said.
Brenneke added that students’ “reading lives have atrophied.”
One of our department members recently did her doctoral study on the volume of reading that our students are doing. And it is just paltry. They’re crying for time to apply what they’re learning in reading workshop on their own. Our middle school teachers have been working very, very hard, um, to meet district expectations.”
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Learning Chuck Smith echoed Brenneke. “The teachers explicitly said they wanted to teach reading and writing as a single course.”
However, when two classes are combined into one, that means only one teacher will be needed. This is the area where the bulk of the teacher reduction would happen, with one teacher from each of the nine teams losing their job.
Teacher and Parent Concerns
The block schedule proposal has raised several significant concerns among parents and teachers as well as BOE members. Much of the conversation that followed Higgins’ formal presentation reflected that.
It’s been widely reported that a survey of the certified teaching staff at Middlebrook founr that 90% are opposed to the block schedule as proposed. [Editor’s note: a statement made by the teachers’ union president at the Dec. 15 meeting appears below.]
At several points during the meeting, both Kevin Smith and Higgins openly acknowledged the impact the change would have on the faculty.
“I understand one of the primary concerns of the Middlebrook faculty is the potential reduction of staff with the integration of reading and writing,” Smith said, but wondered: “If that wasn’t a factor would we have such an intense response to a block schedule transition?”
Many parents have expressed dismay at the news of teacher reduction and have voiced their objections to the schedule change arround that concern. A letter to the editor from resident Tami Ward today makes that point.
Resident Mark Shaner also made the point in his public comment at the BOE meeting.
“I just don’t understand what the evidence is that reduction in teachers leads to better academic outcomes,” he said.
Smith pointed out that the largest enrollment decline in the district next year will be at Middlebrook.
Denton suggested that many teachers are opposed to the change because they’ll have to adjust to teaching in an entirely different model, especially as many Wilton teachers spend the bulk of their careers in this district. She surmised what many teachers might be thinking:
“It’s scary. It’s different. I know what I can do in 41 minutes. I’m not sure what I can do in 88 minutes. I think there’s an unknown there,” she said.
Board member Jennifer Lalor said she needs to hear more teacher input directly.
“I’d love to have the teacher’s voice, they’re the ones implementing it. I find very often on paper, something sounds great, but then sometimes … what we think at the top doesn’t always translate onto our kids. For a change of this magnitude, I’d love to have some more input,” she said.
Schmauch agreed. “I’d also like to see more support from the teachers because that 90% is worrisome.”
Higgins interpreted that statistic a different way. “We have a wonderful, beautiful, passionate staff that want to get it right. And they have questions and I don’t have answers for some of the pieces. There are other parts where they need to understand it and see it for themselves to know that, ‘Yep, I can do it.’
- Clarity on ‘Skills Block’ and Instructional Quality of Block Scheduling
Many of the BOE members continued to express their concerns about the Skills Block.
Schmauch questioned how realistic expectations were to have middle school-aged students focus for such long classes or to self-motivate during Skills Blocks without more structure.
“I just don’t see how a child sitting for 88 minutes and — you said enrichment, passion projects, transdisciplinary work, capstones. I think that’s great for the unicorns who are really self-motivated, who can sit there and say, ‘I have 88 minutes, I’m going to read ahead and be prepared for next week.’ But the majority of the kids, I’m not understanding what they’re doing in that skills, whether it’s extra homework?” she said adding, “So the teachers [also] have to then create a plan and a schedule for that environment during skills.”
Smith agreed that the discussion around the Skills Block is more conceptual at this point. “It’s chock full of opportunities,” he said.
He returned to the discussion of how having a Skills Block would provide equity around all learners having access to STRIDE and world language classes.
“Right now you have kids who have to opt out of STRIDE. Part of the Middlebrook philosophy, exploration is a key part of that. We want kids to be exposed to lots of things, but because of the constrictions on the day, there is forced choice. This would alleviate a lot of that pressure,” Smith said, adding that not only have more students opted into intervention after the pandemic, many families are faced with an either/or choice.
“Not reaching kids you need to reach because of the structure of the day, that to me is a problem,” Smith said.
Schmauch agreed, to a point. “I agree. I just don’t want a bunch of kids sitting in a room trying to figure out what to do. Once I see what that Skills [Block] looks like, I’ll feel a little better.”
Board Chair Ruth DeLuca asked for concrete and visual information that would show what a day in the life of students and teachers would look like — and perhaps even a trial run. “It would also be really great if we could arrange for that walk in the day in the life to actually happen in the school, in addition to having it flushed out on paper.”
Smith told the board the block schedule would open an opportunity for a new STEM STRIDE class.
“With a transition to a block, the mathematics curriculum integrates data and stats class. It opens up a period now in the STRIDE block. Also we’re in the middle of a STEM review and we know we have a gap in the Middlebrook curriculum. There’s an opportunity here to address coding and robotics in the STRIDE block,” Smith said.
- Budget implications
One complaint about the proposed schedule change is that cutting 10 teachers was motivated by the need to keep the proposed FY 2024 budget tight.
John Priest, a Middlebrook teacher and Wilton resident suggested that during the Dec. 15 meeting public comment.
“For the last four to five years, the discussion about a new schedule at Middlebrook was revolving around instructional time for math — 50-60 minutes of time for math was repeatedly used at Board of Ed meetings. The curriculum administration consistently stated, ‘We need more time for math. But this schedule cuts math time.’ … What happened? I’m concerned the answer lies in … the Board of Ed announcing a $1.1 million overrun and extraordinary budget challenges. Eliminating 10 Middlebrook positions is roughly the same amount of money needed to cut in the [FY 2024] budget. This is also the same cost, about $1.4 million, that we spend on the teacher coaching program, which has also fallen under scrutiny for the love of our students and teachers. Please reconsider the coaching program,” Priest said.
Kevin Smith addressed that point later in the meeting, saying he wanted “to dispel a misperception.”
“The motivation for contemplating a change is not the budget. We have been looking at bell schedules for years, well beyond any individual budget cycle. That being said, there are real questions here. So the language arts department is twice the size of every other core department. If language arts is integrated, at least in one model you would have a single teacher,” Smith said. “So you have nine language arts staff that you wouldn’t necessarily need in this model.”
He later explained that the 10th teacher position that would be cut was associated with the statistics STRIDE class, which would be eliminated when the subject matter would be integrated back into the overall math curriculum with the longer math blocks.
What surely is budget-related is the limited time the BOE members have to consider whether or not to approve the change for next year just as they are in the midst of budget deliberations. They will begin deliberating the BOE budget on Thursday, Feb. 2; they have a joint meeting with the Board of Finance on Thursday, Feb. 9; and they are scheduled to approve the budget on Thursday, Feb. 16. Their decision on Middlebrook’s schedule will need to be reflected in whatever budget continues moving on through the FY 2024 budget process.
Higgins said he’s aware that both parents and teachers feel like the schedule change plan hasn’t been well-communicated.
“The administration ensured regular communication to staff about the process and the progress during regular updates at staff meetings, opening schedule meetings to everybody. We’ve given updates at PTA meetings, at teaching and learning committee meetings, and at Board of Ed meetings,” he said, although he acknowledged that some people may not have had availability when those opportunities were presented.
He said he the district is following an orderly communication plan: “The scheduling committee work led to a recommendation. Then we met with our instructional leaders, our building leadership, then a staff meeting, followed up with small groups to answer questions, provide any more clarity where it needed to be. We met with our classified staff and support staff to do the same. We met with our PTA leadership and parents. Tonight’s Board of Ed presentation,” he said, adding there would continue to be letters from him to parents every week, forums, and informational sessions with students.
As the Dec. 15 discussion drew to a close, Kevin Smith made another argument in support of block scheduling.
“This is the only model to date that I’m aware of unless I missed a meeting that meets the goals that we have laid out and have been talking about for multiple years. I want to be really respectful to the staff. There’s a cost to that. But when we talk about the opportunities to serve kids, one of the things we don’t talk about is creating opportunities for kids to think deeply. What a block does is create concentrated time to work through an instructional framework. Those frameworks explicitly address opportunities for kids to think,” he said, adding, “I think this is the model that’s the right model.”
Smith adressed a point that had been raised earlier, that research shown no concrete proof that block scheduling improves learning and outcomes.
“If you look at the research on block schedules relative to student achievement outcomes are agnostic. It’s what you do with the time that matters,” he said.
Given everything, Higgins told the board he was confident in the schedule he proposed.
“Given the concerns, [do] we feel that this is the right thing for this school, for now and for moving forwards?” DeLuca asked.
“Yes,” Higgins answered. “Yes. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get there.”
The following is a statement made by Andrew Nicsaji, Wilton Education Association President, at the Dec. 15 BOE meeting, during public comment.
My name is Andrew Nicsaji and I teach mathematics to eighth graders at Middlebrook School. I have been president of the Wilton Education Association for over 20 years. Last week, Middlebrook administration announced that there would be a new schedule at Meadowbrook next year and gave some information about the schedule a.fter small meetings that offered limited information about the proposed schedule.
The WEA conducted a survey and asked Middlebrook teachers whether they support the proposed schedule. An overwhelming 90% of the 80 respondents said that they do not support the schedule, and they provided their reasons why. Some frequently listed reasons include:
1. Our school will lose 10 qualified, experienced, dedicated teachers.
2. Students will not receive a better education by cutting 10 instructional positions in a building.
3. The schedule will significantly cut ELA instructional time, which is a state-tested subject area.
4. The schedule includes a cut in math instructional time, which is a state-tested subject area. With the loss of the probability and statistics course and the introduction of breaks that will be required in the long, 88-minute classes, there will definitely be less math instructional time. This flies in the face of the original BOE request, which was to increase math instructional time.
5. Middle school students will have difficulty sustaining attention for 88 minutes per class; they express their dislike for the occasional 53-minute classes that we have.
6. Too many questions remain about the vague and ill-defined SKILLS block.
7. The SKILLS block will cause more planning for teachers in a schedule that contains less daily planning time for teachers.
8. The unveiling of the proposed schedule was limited. There was no detailed presentation, and many questions received vague answers, leaving some teachers unable to make an informed decision about whether they support the schedule.
9. The main goal of the proposed schedule appears to be to cut the budget.
10. If there is a need to cut the budget, then positions without direct student contact should be cut.
11. Staff has no ownership in this proposed schedule. It was pushed forward without the staff at large seeing it.
The fact that only 10% of Middlebrook teachers support this schedule is very discouraging. This should be a time of excitement over a new schedule with 90% (or more) of us supporting it. We implore you to prevent the implementation of this schedule in the hopes of leaving the schedule as is, or finding another schedule that garners much more support from teachers.