Northwood to eliminate block schedules in favor of everyday classes
By Jeanette Der Bedrosian
Vivian Scretchen's daughter, Vanessa, now a junior, chose to attend Northwood High School in Silver Spring because of its block schedule, and her mom says it's that schedule that contributed to her making the honor roll for the first time.
Ethan Barbee, a sophomore at the school, said the block schedule gives him an extra class he uses for an elective. And Brooks Boliek said his 15-year-old son, West, loves the school for its block schedule because it accommodates his dyslexia.
But next school year, Northwood will start operating on a daily schedule, with each student taking seven shorter classes a day rather than four longer classes a day every other day. The decision was made in an effort to help the school make adequate yearly progress on state tests, and also has a tie to labor issues—the new schedule requires teachers to teach five periods instead of six, according to Northwood Principal Dr. Henry Johnson. But parents and students who have grown to love the block schedule say they feel gypped by the change.
Johnson said the school is trying to improve athletic eligibility rates and meet state test score standards, which it has missed for the past two years. In 2010, Northwood missed adequate yearly progress for special education reading and math, according to the state testing site, www.mdreportcard.org. In 2010 reading, 51.2 percent of Northwood's special education students passed, while the benchmark for adequate progress is set at 72.7 percent. In 2010 math, 40.9 percent of Northwood's special education students passed, and the benchmark was set at 64.9 percent.
In 2009, the school failed to meet the benchmark graduation rate, the site says. Just below 80 percent of the school's students graduated that year, and in order to make adequate progress, 85.5 percent would have had to graduate.
"We've tried a number of things, but we haven't really looked at the schedule," he said about efforts to meet state test standards. "So maybe we should look at the schedule as an answer to some of these academic concerns we need to address."
The decision to change scheduling systems did not come from Johnson, he said. A stakeholder group of faculty, parents and students met in November to discuss possible changes to the schedule. That group decided to keep at least some form of block scheduling. The group then passed its findings on to the school's "instructional council," which consists of department chairs, resource teachers, supporting services members, administrators and faculty members.
The instructional council considered the recommendation from the stakeholder group but ultimately voted to institute an everyday schedule. Community Superintendant Bronda Mills signed off on the decision.
With this announcement, many parents have taken to Northwood's listserv to air their complaints about the shift. Parents involved in the stakeholder committee question why the instructional council went against their recommendation. Parents and students lament the loss of the eighth period, which many students used for theater, art or other elective classes. And they say the block schedule was one of the main reasons for picking Northwood out of the four options for high schools in the Downcounty Consortium.
"I can't escape this feeling that I'm being fed the bait-and-switch or something," said Brooks Boliek. "In my mind, I think that someone's given me a deal, and now they've reneged on that deal."
"It's a slap in the face," said Scretchen, who was on the stakeholder committee. "For them to not even come to us and let us know that these are the results before we hear it from the outside, that's a double slap. You want parents to be more involved, but why do we want to be involved when it's like this? When what we're doing doesn't mean anything?"
The change means each student will have seven 45-minute class periods a day. Formerly, each student had four 90 minute periods a day and saw each teacher every other day for a total of eight classes a week. With the new schedule, each teacher will teach five classes instead of six.
Upset parents say the shift to everyday scheduling means less instructional time—most classes take about 10 minutes for students to settle in. With longer classes, those 10 minutes don't mean much. But with 45-minute class periods, that's a substantial chunk of time, they say.
But Johnson said the instructional committee argued that it would help students to see their teachers every day, and it would cut the need for refreshers at the start of every class period.
"They felt very strongly about the decision they made," Johnson said. "I don't think it was a matter of the instructional council not listening to [the stakeholder group], I think they just felt so very strongly that a change needed to be made in order to improve instruction at the school. They're the ones with the students every day, and they see how the students perform and what challenges they face. They didn't discount it, they just felt very strongly about it."
Though some schools have shifted away from block schedules in recent years, several county high schools still have some sort of modified block schedule. Those schools include Blair, Blake, Kennedy, Watkins Mills and Wheaton high schools, according to MCPS Spokeswoman Lesli Maxwell. Maxwell said parents hoping for a change can go through the usual appeal process by filling out a complaint form that goes to school administration. The Board of Education also has the power to appeal the schedule change.
As Chevy Chase school budgets shrink, role of PTA expands
By Sarah Gantz
As the Montgomery County Public School System continues to pare down its budgets, some Chevy Chase-area Parent Teacher Associations find themselves taking on a new role: subsidizing their schools, to make up for what the county is no longer able to provide.
PTA members say an increasing proportion of their fundraising efforts are being put toward basic school supplies and operations, rather than fun events and extras.
"In the past, the PTA has been in a role of community building and school spirit," said Jennifer Mitchell, the PTA president for Chevy Chase Elementary School. "But it's also become very important to supplement funds where the county or the school system can't get those funds."
Chevy Chase Elementary School's PTA is this year working to purchase computer carts that could be shared among classrooms to provide computer instruction. Budget cuts forced the school to close its computer lab this year, Mitchell said. The carts serve as miniature computer labs — each is equipped with a computer for teacher, a wireless printer and 10 smaller netbook laptops for students to share.
So far, the PTA has bought two carts, at about $6,000 each, and hopes to buy three or four more, Mitchell said.
In order to collect enough money for the carts, the PTA decided to scale down one of its biggest community events, a fall festival, Mitchell said. The event cost less than $1,000, she said, because the PTA was able to solicit donations from local businesses.
The Chevy Chase PTA's total revenue, which includes fundraising, member dues and program service revenue, was about $59,000 in 2008, according to the group's most recent tax filing. Mitchell said the group's revenue has remained about the same since, but declined to give a dollar amount.
The PTA at North Chevy Chase Elementary School has been adding to the list of school expenses it takes over from the county. When the county said it could no longer pay for the educational magazines teachers use, the PTA picked up the tab, about $1,300, said Sandra Chambers, the school's PTA president.
This year, the county cut the after-school bus, which brings home students who stay for a tutoring program. The PTA is paying for the bus, about $1,200.
"I think with the budget cuts, I'm not sure what's standard anymore," said Chambers. "With the budget cuts, the PTA is trying to pick up more and more."
The North Chevy Chase PTA's total revenue was about $43,000 in 2007, according to the group's tax filing. Chambers declined to discuss the group's more recent fundraising totals.
Not only are PTA's taking on more responsibility, some are raising more money and looking to alternative revenue sources.
Rosemary Hills Primary School's PTA has this school year raised more than three times as much money as years past, said the PTA's co-president, Holly Gross. The PTA has raised more than $60,000, about $18,000 of which will go toward the PTA's programs. The remainder will go to technology for the school, notably six Promethean boards, which will cost about $36,000. The school has four boards, which are interactive white boards, that are shared.
The PTA has always contributed to basic school needs, such as carpets for classrooms, but what's new, Gross said, is how they are raising money.
Standard fundraisers, such as a wrapping paper sale, have proven challenging to make profitable—people feel guilted into purchasing something they do not want to support a cause with vague definition.
Instead, the PTA has simply been asking for money — from parents, community members and even local governments.
Two parents, Sarah Brophy and Philip Giordano, addressed the Town of Chevy Chase's council in December to ask for $6,000 to put toward their goal. The town denied the request, but mentioned the PTA's request in its January newsletter and asked residents to consider contributing to their cause.
Neighboring Chevy Chase villages pitched in. Section 5 contributed $4,000 and Section 3 gave $2,500, with Section 3 residents contributing an additional $1,500, Giordano said.
"This was the easiest fundraiser I've ever done — just by asking people for the money just to write a check to the school," Gross said.