Flexible Periods Allow for Personalized Learning Opportunities

For decades, school principals have searched for better ways to use time more effectively in the school. At the high school level, this search has manifested itself through iterations of daily period schedules, sometimes referred to as “bell schedules.” Schools, on average, change their bell schedule every five to seven years as needs in their building evolve. In schools today there are traditional schedules such as a 50-minute 7 period or 45-minute 8 period day. There are block schedules which allow fewer classes each day for longer periods of time (typically in the 90-minute range). There are waterfall schedules and drop schedules, both of which which allow for classes to cycle through each day and perhaps drop certain periods from the rotation each day. A common occurrence with many of these variations on the high school schedule is the inclusion of a period known as “advisory”, an opportunity where a small group of students can be matched with one adult with the goal of relationship-building and support for academic, social, or future-planning needs.

In 2010, high school principal Brian Pickering  of ConVal High School in Peterborough, New Hampshire, was trying to figure out how he could make better use of advisory time to provide his students with a more personalized academic experience. The 2016 New Hampshire High School Principal of the Year wrote about his dilemma in a November 2016 article for the National Association of Secondary School Principals: “It all started in 2010, when Bailey, a senior at ConVal Regional High School, went to the principal with a problem. The problem was straightforward. The solution, however, was not. She needed help studying for an upcoming physics exam, but she played sports, so she couldn’t stay after school to study, she didn’t have the same lunch as her physics teacher, and her teacher wasn’t available before school. Bailey had tried, but she just couldn’t find time to get the help she needed. And, she wasn’t alone. Students at ConVal were having trouble finding time for enrichment activities, extensions, mentoring, providing intervention and support, as well as social emotional supports.”

For Pickering, the solution would come from reimagining how advisory time was used at his school. According to this recent New England Association of Schools and Colleges article, Pickering and his staff asked themselves this question: “How can we fit Response to Intervention (RTI) and relearning, mentoring and advising, and enrichments and extensions all effectively into the school day?” The result, as the article went on to describe, was the creation of a daily flexible period that gave both students and teachers in their New Hampshire school guaranteed time to plan for and support academic progress. Their idea, which they named Teams in Academic Service Centers, or TASC, operated in a very simplistic way. Students are assigned a homeroom or advisory that they attend at the start of every week. With the assistance of their advisory teacher, students sign up to receive academic intervention, re-teaching, or enrichment with various teachers in the building. When Pickering and his staff found a software developer who could build them a scheduling tool to make this sign-up more efficient, they were able to enhance their design by creating the ability for teachers to “pre-book” appointments during TASC time with students who needed extra academic supports. According to the article, Pickering reports that TASC has been a huge success. “Teachers love the TASC model because it takes pressure off after-school time and allows them to meet individual student needs without slowing down their lesson plans. Students also rate the program highly – nearly 90% of students surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that TASC offered them the opportunity to improve their learning. And, student performance outcomes demonstrate significant wins: following the first full year of TASC implementation, there was a 31% decline in D and F grades.”

Many schools have taken Pickering’s lead to adopt a similar flexible learning period to meet their needs within their existing bell schedule. For example, five years ago my New Hampshire High School embedded Focused Learning Time (FLT) into our waterfall-drop schedule. In this Competency Works article, I talk about how our flexible FLT period supports our school’s competency-based learning model by providing students and teachers with dedicated time to engage in personalized instruction and provide students with support for intervention, extension, and enrichment as needed throughout the school year. At my school, Professional Learning Community (PLC) teams oversee the many choices that are made available to students for FLT each week. PLC teams are made up of teachers who share students, such as a ninth grade team that consists of math, English, Science, and Social Studies teachers who work with the same group of students. Working collaboratively, this PLC team knows best what types of interventions and enrichments should be offered in FLT for their students each week. Structuring our school into small learning community teams like this makes for a high level of teacher buy-in for the FLT model in our school.

On this blog, the staff at Enriching Students, a software tool that supports the flexible period model, talk about the need for responsive scheduling in schools today. They define this as “a way of scheduling students that enables you (the teacher) to quickly adjust to student needs.” They go on to suggest that “responsive scheduling allows you (the teacher) to put students where they really need to be, when they need to be there.” As schools move into the personalized learning space, the ability to flexibly group students to provide them the supports they need at the time grows. Perhaps in the coming years it will be the “norm” for students to have a flexible period of time built into their day. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, most of a school day will consist of flexible time for student choice and voice. The possibilities are endless, the need is great, and some schools have already started making that time available to students today.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.

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