Naked City

A Little Off Schedule

Rebecca Harding, 1999 AISD teacher of the year, tells students that she cannot imagine how lab classes will function without block courses at an Education Austin rally last week.
Rebecca Harding, 1999 AISD teacher of the year, tells students that she "cannot imagine how lab classes will function without block courses" at an Education Austin rally last week. (Photo By John Anderson)

Austin schoolteachers, shocked and angry at superintendent Pat Forgione's recent decision to eliminate block class schedules from Austin's secondary schools, say individual campuses should be allowed to devise their own ways to lower the cost of instruction. A proposal tendered to Forgione by teacher representatives on Monday suggests that schools can maintain longer class periods, avoid working teachers harder, and still save $3 million by reducing the number of courses required in a school day. That's well below the $8 million in savings Forgione is seeking, however, and class schedules for the next school year are already overdue.

"I apologize that this decision needed to be made quickly," Forgione said last week, explaining why he acted without consulting teachers and parents, "but I didn't have the luxury to say to campuses, 'Do it your way.'" Forgione has defended his plan, which will replace the four 90-minute classes most middle- and high-school students now take with seven 50-minute periods, as unavoidable in the face of a $28 million budget shortfall resulting from AISD's new status as a "property-rich" district. But the new schedule means more classes for teachers and less time for planning, and parents believe the shorter class periods will hinder in-depth learning. Forgione's plan provoked an outpouring of grievances before the AISD board of trustees Monday night that lasted nearly six hours.

Forgione says the savings gained by reverting to a more traditional schedule will avert the need for 190 additional teacher hires next year without sacking any current employees, and boost total instruction time to boot. But teachers argue that there's nothing "traditional" about the daily workload of six class periods that Forgione is foisting upon them. More commonly, teachers carry five periods in a traditional schedule or three periods in a block schedule. Cramming science labs and other advanced courses into shorter periods is bad enough, teachers say; worse still is having to take home tests and papers from an additional 30 students.

AISD staff say school campuses reserve the right, under TEA guidelines, to decide how they'll meet curricular and budgetary challenges. "Forgione's Seven-Period Mandate is a reckless and poorly thought-out decision," said teachers Shawn Tyson and James Hook in a letter to the district. "While staffing cuts may be necessary, dictating to schools what schedule they must implement is not." The counterproposal offered by Education Austin, the group which represents AISD teachers, would preserve campuses' current right to choose between a block or traditional schedule, but shave off one daily class period: Students on a traditional plan would be required to take six, not seven, periods, while those in a block schedule would alternate between three- and four-period days, a total of seven periods instead of the current eight. The proposal also suggests that campuses could better ensure that all teachers are pulling their fair share of classroom duty.

Forgione has said he might re-visit his schedule change next summer if enough budget cuts can be found in other areas. But the district is still miles away from its $28 million goal, and $14 million was pared out of the budget just last year. The new schedule, AISD spokesman Andy Welch says, curtails campuses from spending money on nonessential courses the district can no longer afford. AISD has been running for the last few years without measuring the budget impacts of new classes and programs, says Welch. "There's been some loose reins out there," says Welch. "[Forgione] would love to say to every principal, 'Here are your parameters, and you work with your school.' But there has to be some discipline in the system."

If excessive course offerings are the problem, the teachers' counterproposal would seem to address that more directly than Forgione's plan, which essentially scrunches more courses into teachers' classrooms. But would parents, especially at the district's magnet schools, accept a truncated school day? School board president Kathy Rider says there's no way she'll support that idea, which would give the impression, she says, that the district is backing off its commitment to top-flight academics. And the traditional seven-period plan, Forgione argues, still allows a healthy variety of courses. "We need to get back to the basic Chevrolet as far as our instructional framework is concerned," says Welch. "But you ... can add some extras to that Chevrolet and make it a high-performance car."

Research shows that block schedules have little effect on college entrance exam scores, though they have been shown to reduce discipline problems and dropout rates. Austin High School, for example, which uses a traditional schedule, posts higher SAT and ACT scores than other district high schools on block schedules. But Austin High history teacher Bob Kuhl, a Fulbright scholar, says he'll have to resign if another hour of classes is added to his day, compromising the time he can spend with students. "I've worked on an assembly line," Kuhl told the AISD board. "It works great for building lawn mowers. But it's not good for developing young minds." Kealing Middle School parent Niyanta Spelman, whose son plans to attend the magnet school at LBJ, agrees with teachers that campuses should be allowed the flexibility to solve scheduling problems. "The community didn't get a choice in this," Spelman says. "I'd be more inclined to trust the principals and teachers."

The AISD board has called for a work session on scheduling options next week. Rider says the board is generally supportive of Forgione's plan.

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Pat Forgione, Kathy Rider, Shawn Tyson, James Hook, Education Austin, Andy Welch, Bob Kuhl, Niyanta Spelman

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