September/October 2017

Ken Wallace, Ph.D., is the superintendent of Maine Township High School District 207, based in Park Ridge.

Like many Illinois school districts, Maine THSD 207 has a strong focus on personalizing the learning experience for its students and adults in order to provide the most compelling instructional program possible. We strive to improve student outcomes for our students while they are in high school and provide better guidance to increase the odds of success as adults. These commitments to personalized learning and better student service are the key drivers that led the Maine THSD 207 Board of Education to adopt a new “District 207 Hybrid” bell schedule.

Our work to personalize learning — for our students and the adults who serve them — has two robust elements, upon which we built the foundation for, and expect to significantly improve on, the hybrid schedule. The first is that our class of seniors, graduating in 2018, will have attended a high school in which every teacher, every year, had an instructional coaching plan led by a peer teacher-coach in order to improve teaching and learning. We know of no other school district that offers such across-the-board teacher coaching plans. We have worked hard to provide a compelling world-class curriculum to each student, and we have more students taking our most challenging courses than ever, with a constant growth trajectory.

In addition to entering our fourth year of instructional coaching plans for teachers, we are entering the third year of developing individual career plans for students in an effort to improve college, career, and life counseling for our students. We help match their passions and talents with viable career options informed by better information about jobs and the education, training, opportunities, and income potential informed by current job market data.

Those two personalized learning elements set the stage for Maine THSD’s new hybrid bell schedule, which will go into effect in the 2018-2019 school year.

What is a hybrid bell schedule?

A hybrid bell schedule combines features of a traditional schedule with those of a block schedule. The eight-period hybrid schedule has eight periods of 50-minute classes (with five-minute passing periods) on Monday, Thursday, and Friday. On Tuesday, periods one, three, five, and seven meet in 90-minute block periods with five-minute passing periods. On Wednesday, periods two, four, six, and eight meet in 90-minute block periods. This will allow for a deeper inquiry and instructional session in every class each week.

Approximately 90 percent of our courses will see increased class time because of this move, as we transition from our current nine-period schedule.

There are four main benefits for District 207’s change to the hybrid schedule, and we believe that at least three of those can apply to many other schools districts:

Better student learning

Because most of the current District 207 courses meet for only 45 minutes at a time, shorter daily instructional minutes limit deeper learning that can occur in the block periods. Longer class times will be available for peer review, student inquiry, longer experimentation, discussion, and learning opportunities. We have outstanding teachers with exceptional pedagogy, and we believe they will take advantage of this change in instructional time each week to create opportunities for students to lead their own learning in deeper ways than the current schedule allows.

In addition, each student will have an individual enrichment period of 90 minutes on Tuesday or Wednesday that we will use to provide a variety of enrichments aimed to provide the student what he or she needs in real time. The range of options will include, but will not be limited to, specific academic supports as needed. This can include

  • Advanced science lab time;
  • College or career counseling or experience (job shadowing, internship, and apprenticeship);
  • Social and emotional supports;
  • Conventional study time;
  • Independent or group study;
  • Online/higher education courses;
  • Practice in an individual or group setting (music, play, mock trial, etc.); and
  • Work programs.

Better service to students for success after high school

We have a goal to “get it right” for every student in helping them make the very best post-high school decisions, and the District 207 Hybrid provides over 80 more minutes per week for student services compared to the current schedule. This commitment is informed by the national data on college underemployment and local, regional, state, and national jobs data. We are looking much more discretely at the distribution of available jobs, the level of potential income, and the range of costs of education or training that would get our students to their ideal careers. The foundation of our work with students begins with their individual career plan as we are applying Project Lead the Way (PLTW) research to our thinking in career counseling. For example, PLTW students get experience in engineering that helps them determine whether engineering is a good fit for them. As a result, students who go through the PLTW curriculum have lower dropout rates in schools of engineering and are more likely to find the profession fulfilling.

We have tried to apply that same practical experience to every student in every possible job field by obtaining each student at least one, and hopefully more, relevant career experience before making a post-high school college and/or career decision. We know we can’t get to perfect, but we can sure get to better, and the District 207 hybrid schedule will allow us to do much deeper counseling than before. Each student’s individual enrichment period of 90 minutes on Tuesday or Wednesday will provide the available time for deeper, more precise college, career, and life counseling with the objective of helping students find a life path where their talents and passions intersect with a viable career, in the shortest amount of time, at the lowest possible cost.

Why does this matter? According to Raj Chetty of Stanford University, today’s young adults (between the ages of 18 and 34) are the first generation of Americans predicted to earn less than their parents. In addition, multiple sources (Brookings, Federal Reserve) peg recent college graduates’ mean debt load at $37,000. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that roughly 50 percent of recent college grads are underemployed, which means that they are either working in a field that did not require a college degree or they have incurred a debt load that is not commensurate with the profession associated with their degree. We will use the District 207 hybrid schedule to bring our counselors into the regular day to connect with students without removing them from class. This will help to provide more and better group and individual work to help our students and families make the right decisions for life after high school.

Better adult learning

District 207 has one of the best teacher leadership and job-embedded professional development programs in the nation. The District 207 hybrid schedule will help us evolve our current model into one that will provide a better adult learning model by “chunking” our adult learning training into smaller segments, particularly on the Tuesday and Wednesday block days. The District 207 hybrid schedule will allow teachers to get training in 90-minute segments on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, practice that new learning with a teacher coach, and then come back again for a shorter session to reflect on the new learning. This also allows for additional supports that may be needed to use the new learning in the classroom, and to improve teaching in the long term.

Save money and increase class time

Though we have been improving our college and career counseling for several years, particularly in large group settings, it has come at an instructional cost. Across our three high schools, we provide approximately 415 hours of group college, career, high school success, and social/emotional counseling each year. These 415 hours primarily come from students being pulled out of classes to have programming in an auditorium or cafeteria. The District 207 hybrid schedule, because of the block days, will allow us to do all of this programming and more, including much more time for individual counseling. This gives 415 hours back to students and teachers to continue in classes.

There is literally nothing more important a school district can do to improve student learning than to have a teaching staff that continuously improves.

District 207 has a long history of this commitment, but this comes with instructional and financial costs. To provide job-embedded staff development in our current model, teachers get substitute teachers in order to attend trainings, which usually meet for full-day sessions. This means missing five classes and those students have a substitute teacher for that day. In the past five years, we have averaged 1,921 substitute-teaching days per year for staff development at an annual cost of $211,000. With the hybrid schedule, we will be able to virtually eliminate this entire cost by eliminating 1,921 days of substitute teaching. Students in over 9,000 classes a year will have their teacher instead of a substitute. Teachers can not only take the professional development that the district has always offered, but will also be able to take more offerings, or lead adult learning themselves, without missing class.

By combining the advantages of a regular schedule with two days of block scheduling in a true hybrid schedule, we believe that we can serve students in much better ways than ever before. We also believe that the model that we have developed will be the growth model in high school scheduling, because of the unique advantages it provides in student service on block days, while combining frequent weekly class meetings in a more traditional model.