Laurel High School to implement block scheduling next fall

By 
Chris Mcconnell Staff Writer
Thursday, February 13, 2020

Laurel High School Principal Shawnda Zahara gave a presentation about the plan to address overcrowding and staffing shortages, and increase academic achievement, by moving to block scheduling starting with the 2020–21 school year.

“We will have over 700 students in the high school next fall. There are 41 staff teaching six periods and we need nine new staff members to adequately serve the current and future needs of LHS,” which she said was not financially possible.

Currently LHS runs on a seven period schedule with 47 minute classes. With the move to a block schedule with eight periods over two days, it will increase the number of period slots to offer classes from 246 to 287. Also, if the district approves additional staff members it would increase the number of slots for classes to more than 300, Zahara said. Period length will likely increase to 80–90 minutes with four per day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be a day for students to check in with all their teachers with eight periods of 40–minute length.

Zahara said the high school is doing this to provide more opportunity to the kids. “We are not cutting anything,” she stressed, “We currently don’t have enough people and spaces to provide more opportunities. Our staff do a tremendous job. They are amazing and LHS has one of the lowest dropout and highest graduation rates in the state, but the low math and English numbers at Laurel are concerning.”

The most recent ACT data (how Montana schools are measured for accreditation) show LHS is behind other similar schools that have implemented block scheduling.

Statewide statistics from 2019 on 11th graders show Laurel High School with 28% of students meeting or exceeding standards in English Language Arts, compared to 61% at Whitefish High School, 51% at Belgrade High School and 69% at Red Lodge High School. In math, Laurel is at 22% compared to 53% at WHS, 40% at BHS and 33% at RLHS. Science is 42% for Laurel, 59% for WHS, 49% at BHS and 70% at RLHS.

“We need to improve academic performance across the board and that’s what we are here to do,” Zahara said. “Right now the schedule doesn’t help the teachers connect with the students. For example, we have 30 kids in pre algebra classes and the teachers can’t reach them.”

Zahara said the studies show that targeted results are seen within a year with block scheduling, but it takes about two years to see academic results. “We need to be committed to it for three years; we have to create habits.”

Trustee Mike Longbottom asked how the scheduling would affect kids in activities who may be gone one or two days a week. Zahara replied, “We have to be mindful of scheduling. Other schools have used video lessons. It’s not without its challenges.”

Superintendent Filpula stated that students who are gone for activities won’t miss all seven classes in one day. “It tends to work out better for the students,” she said.

Advantages of block scheduling include a slower pace for staff and students, more time to build relationships between staff and students, opportunity for deeper learning in subject areas, less transition times between classes and mimicking the post–secondary learning schedule of colleges and trade schools.

The challenges of this type of scheduling include students not seeing all their teachers every day, the change from lecture teaching to workshop models or facilitation techniques, student absences becoming more impactful and student retention concerns.

In January a poll was conducted and 62 percent of staff were for the change, while 38 percent preferred to keep the current schedule. Staff committees are being developed this month and between March and May the schedule will be decided upon and parent/student meetings will commence.

Eric Sweet, Senior Landscape Architect at Sanderson Stewart out of Billings, was on hand to discuss the turf and track conditions at the Laurel Sports Complex, and the cost for future replacement.

He said they were asked in November to check the field to keep it safe for the district. “Overall, with the field being 10 years old, I’m pretty impressed,” he said. “It’s in the top 10 percent of fields this old and there should be 2–3 years left in the life of the field,” Sweet said.

He said if the district re–coats the track it will extend its life 12–14 years. “For a 10 lane track the cost will be around $110,000; $120,000 including striping.”

Replacing the carpet on the field will cost around $60,000, which Sweet said would give the field that extra three years of life before a complete replacement would be needed.

To replace the football field the cost would be between $530,000 and $550,000, with an additional $100,000 for a pad which will increase safety and lower the chances of concussions.

In other business:

• The board unanimously approved the purchase of weight room equipment for the new LHS Sports Performance Facility. LHS PE/Health Teacher and Coach Mike Ludwig stated that the current weight room equipment will be used but because the new facility is significantly larger additional equipment was needed. The approved amount for the the new equipment is $51,481.60.

• A resolution was passed to call for a mail ballot election for May 5, 2020. Four trustees’ terms are expiring this year and must be filled by a vote of the registered voters residing in the school district. The resolution must occur at least 70 days prior to the election. Three trustees will be elected for a three–year term and one for a one–year term.

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