Block ScheduleThe Monticello School Board did not take a vote Monday night on Superintendent Bobby Harper’s recommendation to modify the high school schedule. Instead, the board instructed the high school principal to call a public meeting next month to answer questions and address concerns about how the proposed change from a four-by-four block schedule to an “ABC” schedule would impact students.

A number of Monticello High School faculty members, parents and students are questioning the recommendation. Monticello High School teacher Melissa Sanders presented to the school board Monday night a petition bearing the signatures of 515 high school students who are opposed to the change.

But before Sanders addressed the board, Monticello School Board president Curt Preston made a plea for unity, saying he is aggravated by what he characterized as “negativity.”

“I just want everybody, whenever we leave here, to be one, whether it’s yes, no, no matter what,” Preston said, adding that he is on the school board to support the administration.

“I’m on the board, not to run the school, but to support the administration,” he said. “And that’s just the way it is…. I don’t mean to be blunt but as far as me trying to go one way or another, I don’t think that’s my place to get in the middle of how the school is run….”

After Preston’s remarks, Sanders told the board the current block schedule has worked well for the students. “We’ve always been able to accommodate any mandated changes with our current schedule,” she said.

Monticello High School principal Jim Lucas had cited four reasons for the schedule modification. Sanders addressed each one.

Lucas had said Monticello High School is a “needs improvement” school. However, Sanders said there are 108 schools in Arkansas on the “needs improvement” list. Thirty-two of those schools are high schools and only two of those are block. “So if the schedule is what mandated being a needs improvement school, you wouldn’t see the other 30 high schools on that list,” she said. “So, changing our schedule because of that is not merited.”

Citing a study on the correlation between scheduling and test scores, Sanders said the research did not indicate any correlation between the type of schedule as far as predicting test scores.

“The best way to predict the test scores (is) to look at their eighth grade Benchmark,” Sanders said, citing the study. “So, changing our schedule for test scores is not the right answer.”

Lucas had also said a change to an ABC block schedule is needed to help fully implement professional learning communities (teachers’ meetings) but Sanders disagreed.

“If you look back at our 2008-2011 schedule, we had these common planning periods for academic subjects and the ones who didn’t have common planning periods, we actually met during Excel time,” Sanders said. “So, we’ve been able to meet this mandate on our block schedule.”

The third reason Lucas cited as a need for the schedule change is to implement Common Core. However, Sanders said Common Core is already being implemented and it doesn’t merit a schedule change.

The fourth and final reason Lucas said the schedule change is needed is to implement PARCC assessments, tests that will replace the end-of-course exams.

“The fact of the matter,” Sanders said, “is these tests are not even being given yet. Why are we assuming students won’t do well on a test when there is no proof of that? So, changing the schedule for the PARCC test isn’t merited at this time.”

Sanders asked, among other things, that the proposed ABC master schedule be distributed to the students and their parents in a setting where Lucas can field their questions. She also asked that an inventory of parent and student support of the change be conducted.

“Gentlemen, we’re asking you two things,” she said. “First of all, please do not change our schedule. It has worked for us in the past and will continue to work for us in the future. And, at the very least, that you do not approve something that you have never seen and that you do not know the full impact and how it will affect these kids. There are 515 kids who have signed this, asking you please do not gamble with their academic future.”

Lucas acknowledged that Sanders correctly cited his reasons for the proposed schedule change.

“I have asked that we look at redesigning the school day so that we can implement professional learning communities fully,” he said. “The only way we know, and the (Arkansas) Board of Education research says, the students will get better is when the teachers get better at the tricks and trades that we do — the strategies that we use to prepare those students. We also want to add some remediation courses for those children who are not coming in proficient at the high school and so we need that time to restructure those areas.

“I agree with Mrs. Sanders, we are implementing the Common Core and we’re doing a good job but we’re going to get better,” he said. “This is our first full year of implementation of Common Core and I know we will improve as we go…. We are looking at PARCC assessments. We field test those this spring, both in Algebra and 11th-grade literacy. They have told us at PARCC (and) they have told us at ADE (Arkansas Department of Education) that we could implement Algebra I and II and Geometry and take the test each semester. But, if we do that our kids would be getting in four months what most kids in the state would be getting in a year and our test scores would be compared against those students.”

Regarding the English assessments, he said he was told those will be given only in April to May. “So, I don’t see that it is equitable for a student to take an English class from August to December and not test until April or May,” he said. “I just can’t see that that’s fair to a child.”

School Board member Dr. Michael Fakouri asked if a workable master schedule had been prepared.

Lucas said he created one in January but hasn’t updated it. “It does function,” he said. “There are other schools in the state running an ABC block — Bentonville is the largest — so we know it works.”

Board member John McClendon asked how the proposed schedule change would affect students taking college courses while in high school.

“The only courses we are talking about modifying are the four core classes: social studies, science, math and English,” Lucas said. “All electives remain on the block schedule just like they are now so a kid can go take classes at UAM.”

Board member Lee Busby asked how it would affect drama classes.

Lucas said the head of curriculum at the state Department of Education told him they could offer the English/Language Arts drama course but didn’t recommend it. Lucas said he was told that because it focuses more on reading and writing about drama rather than performing, most students are not happy with that course.

It was suggested, he said, that he submit for approval a course for one semester of fine arts and it would be approved. He said this summer the state Department of Education will be rewriting all of the fine arts frameworks (drama, band, art, etc…) and those will be implemented during the 2015-2016 school year.

Once those frameworks are rewritten, all prior course approvals will become null and void, he said.

“So we’ll have to eventually resubmit course approvals for Drama II, III, and IV,” he said.

Regarding band, Monticello High School Band Director Matt Teague told the board he typically loses about 10 percent of his students in the spring due to scheduling conflicts with other courses. “I feel that on the ABC schedule I’m not going to have a full group,” he said.

If a student signs up for band, they are there for all five days, Lucas said.

“There is no ABC for band,” he said. “They’re on a four-by-four block. If a student makes a choice to be in band they are in there all spring. If they make a choice to take another course I don’t know if Mr. Teague can do anything about that. There’ll always be choices to be made, so he may lose some students but it is not a reflection of the ABC schedule. It’s a reflection of what the student wants to take.”

Superintendent Bobby Harper said the current schedule has worked “to some degree” but things change.

“There’s some things we’ve got to address in the future,” he said “I feel like the schedule doesn’t have anything to do with that other than it gives us a mechanism for meeting in our groups and discussing those things that Mr. Lucas brought up and really getting down to the core of why these kids are not succeeding and why they aren’t doing any better than they’re doing.”

He conceded that the schedule itself will not affect student achievement “but it really gets back down to us having… that deep compassion for kids and passion for what we do and that’s the reason we’ve been as successful as we’ve been.”

Harper said they need to try to reach the students who are not successful.

“There’s got to be more discussion about them, more strategies used or something for us to get better,” he said. “We’re here to teach all kids and it can’t just start at the high school. It’s got to start down there with our parents. It’s got to start in Pre-K, kindergarten and all the way up. We’ve got to look at our program, all the way through, in order for that to happen.

“This is about teaching and learning,” he said. “How do we get better? Our top kids could be doing better. It breaks my heart for us to be 10 years in school improvement in Monticello. I’ve got more pride than that and I know you do too and I know this board does. We’ve got some kids that are doing well and they leave here and they’re successful and they do well but I just feel like we could do better. We’ve got to do something.”

“We agree,” Sanders said. “But we don’t believe changing the block schedule is the answer to helping student achievement. We don’t doubt for a minute that we could be doing more and different strategies. We just don’t understand the need to change the schedule to be able to make that commitment.”

Board member Lee Busby said from the school standpoint communication has been terrible. “We should have done a better job presenting (the recommended schedule change) to parents; I firmly believe that. But everything that has been questioned, Mr. Lucas seems to have answered… What has he not answered? What am I missing here?”

A Monticello High School student then asked if she could address the board.

“Can I say something?” she asked.

“Hold on. Hold on,” Board president Curt Preston said. “This is my take on it and I have the right to say this. I don’t think any students are allowed to speak. I’m sorry but I think that Mrs. Sanders can speak. Let her speak. The reason I say that is because I feel like this is about y’all learning and it’s not about everybody saying ‘what’s best’ and I think if Mrs. Sanders said, ‘We’re gonna go read a book in the pond’ then everybody is supposed to go read a book in the pond and that’s just the way I think it is. I don’t think any student should have any say-so on what goes on. I hate to be blunt but that’s just the way I feel about it. I feel this is administration. It should have been addressed with the teachers maybe better, maybe not, but I don’t feel like any student should have any say-so in it because you’re gonna learn. You’re gonna be just as smart when you leave here any way we do it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be that way but I don’t feel that students should be getting in the middle of this. I feel like this is adult, teachers, administration. I’m sorry.”

Sanders said the students haven’t seen a master schedule and they’re concerned about how the schedule is going to affect them and their ability to take college courses.

“Until you have a master schedule you don’t know the answer to that question, because the ABC block will change the flexibility,” Sanders said. “These students are concerned because some of them want to be honor graduates and they want scholarships and they have to be able to get two foreign languages and nobody has explained to them how they are going to be able to do that. These students are concerned because they have eligibility for athletics and they’re taking four classes now and if you put them in six classes and they’re barely getting by with four they’re not sure they’re going to be able to handle six. They have lots of questions because this is the group that this affects. We teach them, regardless, but they’re the ones that it has a huge impact on.”

Sanders said the current schedule works for the kids. They know it, they’re comfortable with it, and they know the flexibility that it has.

“What you’re gambling with is that the new one that you haven’t seen is going to help them,” she said.

Bennie Ryburn, III, one of the parents in the crowded board room, responded to Preston’s refusal to allow the student to speak.

“Curt, I don’t know how old your kids are but mine are pretty grown up,” Ryburn said. “I think you should at least hear them.”

“Well, I don’t,” Preston said. “I’m sorry. I don’t. That’s the way I feel… If you tell these kids something, they’re gonna do it… I think that’s where we are in society is we let the tail wag the dog instead of the dog wag the tail; instead of y’all saying ‘hey, we’re gonna do it like this’. I just don’t think the kids should be involved.”

Echoing his previous comment, Preston said he was there to support the administration.

“I feel like y’all are wanting to pull toward us to make a decision and I don’t think that’s right,” Preston said. “I don’t think that it’s my place to come to the school, ever, and ask you why you’re doing something. I just think that I belong where I am — working — and come up here once a month. And that’s just where I stand on it.”

Other board members seemed to agree with Preston that the matter should have been handled by the administration.

“This should have been handled from the administrative standpoint and not a board standpoint,” said Fakouri. “And I feel strongly about that so if it’s going to be put in my plate it’s going to be handled good, because I don’t want the pie in my face.”

McClendon said it is a difficult issue because the board doesn’t know what to do. Since the easy thing to do would be continue the current schedule, the administration obviously feels pretty strongly that the schedule change will improve something. However, he said, he can appreciate the concerns expressed at the meeting. “That’s why it is such a difficult decision,” McClendon said. “The board really doesn’t know what is the right thing to do and the people who are going to have to execute it are the ones who are against it.”

After more discussion, Preston suggested that Lucas meet with students and their parents on January 12 at 2 p.m. to answer questions and address their concerns.

Harper said he would notify the parents and students of the date, time and venue of the meeting.

In a final word, Busby said he realizes it is an emotional issue but asked that everyone try handle it in a professional manner.

“We’re trying to figure out the best thing for these kids…,” Busby said. “We’re all on the same page, we’ve just got to stay level-headed about this. Everybody stay calm and cool. We’re going to try to figure out the best thing, get the pieces put together, and move in the right direction.”