New schedule coming for SPS high school students in ‘23-’24

Published 8:45 pm Friday, October 14, 2022

A new schedule is on the horizon for high school students in Suffolk Public Schools.

Though some School Board members had concerns about its implementation, they voted 5-1 Thursday to adopt a 4×4 block schedule that will begin with the 2023-2024 school year. Member Heather Howell voted no, and Sherri Story was absent.

This follows a survey in which division stakeholders were asked to weigh in on a shift from the current seven period schedule.

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“We (are) really excited about some of the positive things for not only our students … but also for our staff members,” said Chief of Schools Dr. Stenette Byrd III.

The pros of a 4×4 schedule, according to division officials, include the increased access to advanced classes and added opportunities for student remediation, higher on-time graduation rates, reduced student and teacher workloads for each semester and students being able to attend four classes per day. It also aligns with high school schedules from surrounding school divisions.

Students will attend the same four classes every day for about 90 minutes per period and finish each of them in one semester, though there are some exceptions. It will allow students to take eight classes in a school year instead of seven, and allows students to earn up to 32 credits, as compared to the current 28 credits, should they go through all four years of high school on the 4×4 block schedule.

Byrd said the new schedule would allow for continuation of instruction and allows for routines to remain consistent throughout a semester.

Dr. Angela King, supervisor of school counselors, shared a sample 4×4 schedule versus the current schedule.

In the current schedule, high school students take seven classes, with just one meeting daily, and the other six alternating between even and odd days, each lasting 100 minutes. In a sample 4×4 schedule, students would have four classes in each semester lasting about 90 minutes.

King said there are increased credit opportunities, including verified credit opportunities (Standards of Learning classes), increased opportunities to take speciality classes and earn industry credentials, and gain access to advanced classes such as dual enrollment or advanced placement classes. It would also, she said, provide students who need to repeat a class that opportunity without falling behind, which she noted increases the on-time graduation rate.

Byrd said some teachers pointed out that they would teach about 25 more students in a year than they do now. Plans call for hiring additional staff to ensure teachers do not have the duty requirements they have now, and that will also allow teacher planning periods to be protected.

“Other lessons we learned from this survey is that we need to continue to educate and prepare our community,” Byrd said. “There were still some questions and lack of understanding of what is involved with the block schedule, so we need to make sure to do that.”

Byrd said they also would need to finalize a block schedule, solidify staffing to determine how many more people they would need, and provide incentives for students to take advantage of the four extra classes they would have.

The survey of the 4×4 block schedule, from Sept. 22 to Oct. 7, generated 922 responses, nearly 82% of them from parents, 6.5% from students and 3.6% from staff. Of that, 56% indicated they were excited about the new schedule, 21.2% were unsure and 23.3% said they needed more information.

Other area school divisions already use a 4×4 block schedule, including Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Franklin, along with York, Southampton, Isle of Wight, Sussex and Surry counties.

King said a student transferring to Suffolk from a 4×4 block schedule in the middle of the school year would have issues.

Board member Tyron Riddick said he favored the move to a 4×4 block schedule, but had concerns about its implementation. He said it felt rushed.

“I’d rather wait long than to marry long,” Riddick said in wanting to wait.

Riddick had hoped to delay the decision, but school division officials, including Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III, said the board needed to make the decision so as to give it enough time for implementation in time for the next school year.

Howell said some teachers who she heard from via email had concerns about the workload, and also had concerns about the need for more staffing, and what that would do to the budget. She said it feels like there are many pieces of the new schedule to be worked out.

“I don’t know the answers sitting here, honestly,” Howell said. “My job at this moment is to seek to understand and then communicate to you guys where the concern is so that you can address it, ‘cause you have that information.”

She later said that while she supports the idea of the 4×4 block schedule, her concerns “are with the kinks that have to be worked out.” Howell said she supports Gordon and his staff and believes they will work out any issues with its implementation.

The current standard diploma requirement is 22 credits, with 26 credits needed for an advanced diploma. School officials also said it would allow for added opportunities for special education and English language learning students. Additionally, it will help those who may fail a class to repeat it in the next semester.

Gordon said previously that the 4×4 block schedule would allow the division to increase its advanced diploma status. He said a student who is behind on a subject such as math, or a student who fails a class, has little chance under the current seven class schedule of earning an advanced diploma. A 4×4 block schedule would allow a repeat of a class in the next semester for those who fail the first time, he said.

High school faculty and staff will like the new schedule, Gordon said, because they would be teaching just three classes per day, everyday – “less papers to grade during the semester.”

He did note, however, that it “will probably require more instructional staff” since students will be taking eight classes, instead of seven.

“We’re going to have to be very strategic with that, because we know there’s a teacher shortage with some of our tough-to-field areas,” Gordon said.

Vice Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum said it would benefit all students.

“Those that are excelling can move quickly, have more opportunities … the way I see it,” Byrum said. “And then for the students who are struggling, I believe it will help the students that are struggling.”

Byrd sought to allay concerns about the shift to the 4×4 block schedule.

“I’m completely confident that it can work,” Byrd said.

Board member Karen Jenkins echoed those comments.

“I believe this is a great move,” Jenkins said. “I don’t see where we’re moving too quickly. … It benefits our students.”

Said board Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck: “I’ve seen it work, and I believe it will work.”