Big changes are likely coming to the halls of Wilton High School for the 2019-2020 academic year, changes that school officials hope will mean stronger student-teacher connection, less student stress and deeper engagement to learning for WHS students. Administrators plan to propose implementing a block schedule program at the high school, scheduling classes every other day instead of daily, and for longer periods of time–90 minutes versus the current 45-minute period.

According to WHS principal Dr. Robert O’Donnell, there are several “perceived advantages” that an alternating block schedule provides; he described them in a letter emailed to school families Tuesday:  “slowing down the frenetic pace of the school day for students and teachers; students and teachers being required to prepare for fewer classes each night; less physical and cognitive transitions; longer class periods in which teachers and students can personalize learning and learn and understand at a deeper level; and more time to build relationships between students and teachers.”

GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with O’Donnell last week about the proposed schedule change, which administrators will bring to the Board of Education for approval, first to the Teaching and Learning Committee and later to the entire Board. If it passes, students and teachers at the high school will find the block schedule as the one they’ll follow next year. (The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.)

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Why did you re-examine the schedule?

Dr. Robert O’Donnell:   It’s healthy for schools to evaluate the schedule they’re running, and look at how people are spending time, and how things are working. We hadn’t done that in quite a long time, in fact for many, many years. It’s a healthy process to take a look at the current schedule, and other schedules out there, and try to figure out are we running the best bell schedule? Is there something out there that might better meet needs? 

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There is some sentiment with students and teachers and many [administrators] that the current pace is just very, very frenetic. The school community here is often on the run from one place to the other, and you have a lot of transitions in place. Beyond that, when you’re starting each class, there’s the physical transition, and then there’s the cognitive transition for students where they’re moving from one 45-minute block to the next, and they have to shift their thinking and their engagement, and so many different learning opportunities, that that can be challenging.

Starting about a year ago, we put together a Bell Schedule Review and Research Committee, comprised of many educators here in the building, and also some parents and students on that committee as well. We started looking at our schedule and then any number of other schedules–we looked at six period days, seven period days, eight period days, nine period days, and we began to look at the merits, the pros and cons of all these different schedules. We had teachers research and present back to the committee on schedules for which they may not have necessarily been in favor of, to try to get an objective look at the schedules that are out there.

The committee looked more closely at the schedules and what we think would work for Wilton. The term that we’ve been using is ‘to Wiltonize’–how do we take a look at the schedules that are out there and Wiltonize, in a positive term? How do we Wiltonize something to meet the specific needs of our school community?

There was a consensus that the periods we’re running are too short, and it’s too frenetic; that if we had longer periods and less transitions, we’d be able to have deeper engagement, deeper learning, less transitioning, more time to personalize learning for students, and really get to know our kids.

We started looking at this alternating A/B block schedule, where instead of meeting every day for 45 minutes, students meet a single class every other day for 85-90 minutes.

From a student perspective, you have fewer classes to prepare for each day. You could have four classes that meet a day, as opposed to seven classes, and so you’d have less homework to do on a given night, you’d be able to focus more on the specific classes that you have the next day. You would have less tests and/or quizzes to prepare for. We wouldn’t have to have these testing days anymore. Teachers and students could really drill down and get into concepts, topics, and projects more in-depth, rather than sometimes on a more superficial level, when you’re trying to rush through these 45-minute periods.

We visited schools that run this block schedule, and it was really quite compelling. Essentially everybody we talked to in these learning communities–we met with students, with teachers, with central office coordinators, administrators–they really spoke very favorably about the impact this schedule has had on their school community, and that it was working well for them, including the students. People really, really liked it, and were convinced this was a very good schedule for their schools.

Beyond that, we had some teachers come in to talk to most of our departments here on the Nov. 6 [professional development] day, about their experiences on the block schedule, and the teachers were just overwhelmingly positive about their teaching experience, and their students’ learning experience with this schedule.

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That was a bit of a tipping point really, where I think we reached more consensus with our teachers that this is the type of schedule that can work for us. Before that, just about all the academic departments were very much in favor of a block schedule, but a few were more on the fence, and hearing from the teachers who had been through the transition helped them buy into it more.

We’ve been working with [the teachers’ union], the Wilton Education Association (WEA), to build some shared agreements around what needs to be in place to move forward with this.

GMW:  It sounds like a lot of thought and investigation and time was put into this.

O’Donnell:  We’ve been thoughtful, we’ve been thorough, we’ve been deliberate, we’ve been very inclusive. It’s been a lot of very thoughtful, dedicated time on behalf of a lot of really good educators who care. 

GMW:  The schools that do this elsewhere, that you visited, were those area schools or within our DRG (District Reference Groups) or in Connecticut? 

O’Donnell:  Yes, within Connecticut. There are different variants of different schedules where they run longer periods. I don’t know all of the specific schedules that the DRG schools run, but there are some blocks in the DRG–I think Weston is on the block schedule.

GMW:  Is it a difficult operationally to transition to this kind of scheduling?

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O’Donnell:  Power School, with our human intervention and guidance, can build this schedule. The software can work with this, we know that. There are different settings in Power School where we would set it up to build the schedule differently.

We’re still talking about an eight period day so that makes it more easy and have more just transferability, if you will, between the schedules. Effectively you’d have the periods, but rather than meeting every single day for 45 minutes they’d be meeting every other day for approximately double that time. We have not established yet the exact number of minutes. We’re working on some of the final details, including we want to build in a flex day, which is a day where advisory can meet. And perhaps some co-curriculars and activities. So that’s one of the things that we still need to design in this bell schedule committee.

GMW:  It seems this might prepare kids for how college operates, this is very much of a college model.

O’Donnell:  Yes.

GMW:  And simultaneously it also sounds like it’s part of the district’s recent focus on social and emotional learning, that it also takes that into account.

O’Donnell:  One of the drivers has been the data on stress with adolescents and stress with our Wilton students. There’s no magic solution to that but we believe and certainly our mental health professionals, our school counselors who’ve been involved, believe that this is a step in the right direction in trying to slow things down to some extent.

I think it can help with some of the mental health problems that students experience. These kids are so over-subscribed and so busy. It does dramatically slow down the school day and allow for more deeper interactions, more thoughtful interactions, deeper learning. There are lot of pros in that area and it certainly can be part of the solution when we really have the important conversation around wellness and stress reduction and just being present.

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There’s essentially half as many transitions during the day when students are expected to be in so many different places. I was talking to a parent the other day who said, ‘I’m just imagining maybe half of the amount of materials in my son or daughter’s backpack on a given day because they’re only going to half of the classes depending on how it schedules out.’

GMW:  Earlier, you mentioned “what needs to be in place for the WEA” to move forward. What are some of those conditions that need to be in place for all the parties at the table to be happy?

O’Donnell:  One of the things the teachers wanted to make sure of was that we’re not going to increase the number of sections that they have to teach.

Another one of the areas is science instruction, and the idea that science has extra instructional minutes in double labs. So we’ve devising a way so that science does not lose significant instructional time. One of their concerns has been the implementation of new standards.

One of the other ones was how will we use the flex day. If some co-curriculars meet on the flex day does that impact the teacher contract?

The other thing [was] some teachers who would wish to go out and visit other schools that are running a block schedule would have the opportunity to do so, so that they can engage in thoughtful planning, and witness instruction with the longer periods.

Most teachers here teach five classes. The way this typically would work that on one day the teachers would teach three blocks and the other day the teachers would teach two blocks.

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If there are [additional] duties that teachers have, we would try to assign the duties on days when they would have the two blocks. One of the other things we will try to build in is collaborative time so teachers can do thoughtful collaborating and interacting, like Instructional Effectiveness Teams (IETs) that engage in some of that work during the school day.

Other buildings had their IET time build in during the school day, whereas at the high school we only have the opportunity to do that after school during Wednesday meetings. So that’s going to be value-added for our teachers to have even more time [and] more opportunities to collaborate. Our teachers are outstanding, but that can result in even better, high quality teaching and better opportunities for our students if teachers really have time to be thoughtful and plan-ful.

GMW:  You mentioned testing days. Can you explain what that is and how it will work in a new schedule?

O’Donnell:  Testing days are days that teachers can administer their tests [or] quizzes sometimes that are called quizzes but they count more heavily–they’re worth more points, the term the students have used is ‘quests.’

We do not want to over-stress our students and have too many assessments on a given day. So actually, this year, we’ve started working on it and made this decision last year with the administrative and leadership teams to have assessment days, to say, ‘Any assessment that takes place has to take place on the days that are assigned to the departments.’ Essentially it’s designed so students don’t have more than three tests on a given day. It’s to say, ‘Let’s not overburden students with too many assessments for which they might not be able to adequately prepare.’ The likelihood of students having four academic assessments.

That is not say that teachers intend to or we intend to double the length of assessments. We will not do that but you could have more time for students to really be thoughtful in completing assessments. We shouldn’t have students that don’t have enough time to really demonstrate what they know and what they can do. Testing days would be effectively a thing in the past with this schedule.

GMW:  From a parent point of view, I’m not hearing much that I don’t like in this. You make a lot of really good arguments for making this kind of change.

O’Donnell:  My strong belief is that the parents who know about it, I think we have the support of the PTSA on this and we have the support of the central office. I think there are a lot of positives here.

GMW:  You’ve talked pros. Are there cons? 

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O’Donnell:  There are pros and cons with any schedule. One of the things you’ll hear about block schedules is the concept of coverage, the idea that you will cover less in a block schedule and, generally speaking, that’s true. Teachers who implement it find that they may be covering less but, that they can drill more deeply into content and concepts and understandings and learning than they otherwise would have been able to do.

There’s a bit of a trade off with depth versus breadth. It’s very natural as teacher to say, ‘I need to cover this much and I need address all of this content.’ I think that’s a legitimate point to put on the table. We will have concerns around student attention span and students who are challenged really to focus and concentrate for longer periods of time. That’s a legitimate thing to discuss and unpack.

With a block schedule with longer periods you need to look at instructional design differently. It’s not determined yet that it will be a 90-minute block but if it were, you’d really be planning for three, 30-minute mini segments, and planning varied activities so that the level of engagement can be sustained.

GMW:   Is there anything else you want people to understand about this?

O’Donnell:  What I really would like people to know is that the purpose of this process and the purpose of any change we make is definitely because we feel it can be better for our students and better for our staff and ultimately, better for our school community. That is the pure vested interest that we all have and it’s a tremendously dedicated group of educators that have been engaged in this process to bring us to this point. The purpose is to make sure we’re being thorough and open-minded, and there may be better ways to engage in this craft of teaching and learning.

There will be further communication about this. When we get to point where we have a schedule designed like the schedule we’re proposing, I think it’ll be very helpful for people to see it, visualize it, and have a better understanding of it. Anybody can get online right now and look at any number of block schedules, but to see the Wilton version, I think, will be helpful.

I’d like the opportunity for us to really communicate this information with our students and get their buy-in. Naturally some students may have aversion to change. They might start thinking, ‘Wow, this is a really long block and if it’s a class that I just don’t love, how is that experience going to be?’ But I would like our students to be able to hear testimonials from kids who have experienced this and the positives.

I believe in this school community. I believe in our students and our teachers and our staff and our parents and I think this is something that we can do together and have it be really positive for our school community. And it’s not just “I.” A lot of staff members really believe that this is going to be really good for us and for the entire school community.