One common condition I often find in schools that are not improving is that they lack a strategic school schedule that provides time for intervention and extension. Schools that seriously embrace their fundamental purpose as a razor-sharp focus on student learning strategically align all structures, practices, and beliefs to that end. The old way of conducting school was that time was the constant and learning then became the variable. All students got the same amount of time to learn critical knowledge and skills; some students learned and some did not. Thus, learning became the variable.
In professional learning communities, the school’s fundamental purpose is student learning, which is the constant. The variables then become time and support. All students are expected to learn critical knowledge and skills at high levels. Some students will need more time and support to do this. Providing more time and support for struggling students requires new ways of thinking about school schedules. A school schedule that does not strategically provide time for intervention, while protecting time for Tier I instruction for all students, is a barrier to school improvement. Conversely, a strategic school schedule that has protected Tier I instructional blocks, along with blocks where students can receive intervention and extension without missing new instruction in critical skills, is a schedule that facilitates learning.
One solution for many secondary schools is to include “flex time” in the school schedule. This is when students who are struggling to learn are directed to intervention while other students participate in extension. A solution for many elementary schools is to build a school schedule with staggered instructional and intervention blocks. Intervention blocks for each grade level are staggered throughout the day so that all school intervention resources, including special education and Title I, can be targeted to one grade level at a time. Teachers within each grade level agree to follow a common grade-level schedule.
I recently helped Central City Elementary start the process of building a strategic schedule using the following steps (the specifics are for Central City, but any school can substitute the specifics for their own school):
Calculate the amount of time available each day:
School starts at 8:00 a.m. and ends at 2:25 p.m. for 6 hrs. 25 min.
Identify and add together the time blocks that are mandated by the district or state:
30 min. for lunch
45 min. for specials (for example, art, music, PE, computers.)
30 min. for brain breaks (or two recesses; some schools only have one)
30 min. for the library or counselor
2 hrs. 15 min. total
Subtract the mandated blocks from the school day:
6 hrs. 25 min.
-2 hrs. 15 min.
4 hrs. 10 min. left for instruction
Identify and then subtract the amount of time for mathematics:
4 hrs. 10 min.
-1 hr. 30 min. for math (60 min. for math instruction/practice and 30 min. for intervention/extension)
2 hrs. 40 min. left
Identify and then subtract the amount of time for language arts:
2 hrs. 40 min.
-2 hrs. for language arts (which includes 30 minutes for reading intervention/extension)
40 min. left for science/social studies (plus 30 minutes from the mandated library or counselor block for any days students do not go to the library or a counselor)
Build the school master schedule with the above time blocks for each grade level.
Stagger each grade level’s 30-minute math intervention block and 30-minute reading intervention block at different times in the master schedule so that school resources can be targeted to help a specific grade.
Identifying and resolving barriers to school improvement is important work for PLCs. Part of this process is ensuring that the school has a strategic schedule that supports learning for all by having protected instructional blocks where students cannot be pulled out, along with designated intervention/extension blocks where struggling students are directed to receive the extra time and support they need to master critical knowledge and skills.