Frankenschedule? Irked Albemarle parents slam 4x4 class plan
In a county where over 60 percent of the high school students receive advanced studies diplomas, anything that gets in the way of relentless achievement can send angry villagers, er, parents, to confront the creators of the Frankenstein creature known as block scheduling.
The Albemarle School Board got a more than hour-long earful during an October 14 meeting, as 16 parents and students denounced block scheduling–- also known as 4x4–- and demanded that the board renounce classes compressed into one intense semester.
"I don't want the kids to be guinea pigs," protested pediatrician Lori Balaban.
"My daughter cannot keep up," said Dawn McCoy of her ninth grader.
"I see no clear justification for this program, which has been abandoned by many other school systems," said parent Mark Echelberger. Invoking Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he added, "I fear teachers and students have been left standing on the shore."
At press time, 369 people had signed an electronic petition on the website of the organization formed to fight squeezing a formerly year-long class like algebra 2 into just one semester.
The plan gives students four 90-minute classes every day for a semester instead of spreading out shorter classes every other day throughout the school year, and it has created something of an uproar–- at least among a group known as CASE: Citizens of Albemarle Supporting Education.
"We knew it would be difficult," says Superintendent Pam Moran. In the face of a $6 million deficit, the School Board faced "some real Sophie's choices," says Moran, noting that the Board also considered sharing elementary school principals, furloughing staffers, cutting kindergarten hours–- as well as reducing art, music, and PE in elementary schools.
Instead, the board opted for an eight-period day in high schools in a plan that was supposed to save $800,000 by axing 22 jobs and forcing high school teachers, who haven't seen a raise in two years, to lift their workload 20 percent by teaching another class.
Dubbed "semesterization," block scheduling or 4X4 by its critics, even its nomenclature is controversial.
"I would love it if you'd not refer to it as 4X4," Albemarle schools spokeswoman Maury Brown tells a reporter. "It's a hybrid."
What the Albemarle School Board adopted during the dark days of winter's record snowfall and budget shortfalls is a hybrid schedule. At Western Albemarle, 60 percent of its classes are taught for the whole year and 40 percent of Albemarle's are. But other classes are squeezed into a compressed 4X4 model for one semester. And it's the 4X4 portion that's causing the consternation.
"I think all of them, to quote Little Shop of Horrors, would prefer a long, slow root canal," says Chris Mann, Latin teacher at Western Albemarle. He has more students than he's ever had in his 28 years of teaching, and he calls the morale "terrible, probably the worst I've seen." And he claims one Advanced Placement teacher who normally has 135 students has 175 this year.
In signing the online petition, Western Albemarle algebra teacher Charles Witt cites exhaustion and what he calls the lowest morale he's seen in 27 years of teaching. "To the parents of my 163 students in 6 classes," he writes, "I am sorry I cannot keep up with all of them and give them the individual attention they deserve."
One option for overburdened, stressed out teachers: "They'll just test less," suggests Mann. And Nancy Hiles Johnson found another solution to the increased workload.
"It is exactly the reason I left Western," says Johnson. "I loved it. But I was already working all day." The extra class would have upped her student load from 100 to 160, and required foregoing a personal life, she says. Now she's teaching 58 students at the private Tandem Friends School.
Tucker Winter also fled Albemarle employment for Tandem."I left because I was so upset by 4X4," says Winter, who worries about the quality of work suffering and her own fatigue "when I thought about having 170 papers to grade at a time."
High school class sizes have grown this year, and the number of classes with more than 27 students has doubled over last year, according to a county school report. But Matt Haas, director of secondary education, disputes the notion that all teachers have 170 students. He says he knows of one at Albemarle High, and that teacher is getting extra pay. And Haas, who served as AHS principal before going to the central office, is teaching one block English class himself.
The CASE parents say that the compressed classes have made it impossible to read the same number of literature classics or to hold the labs and discussions that enliven learning–- because there's simply not enough time.
Compressed classes "encourage cramming, not learning," architect Candace Smith told the Albemarle School Board. "I want my daughter to have a passion for learning."
"Semesterization flies in the face of the research," said Amy Halliday at the School Board meeting, and several others echoed her concern that learning sticks when it has time to be absorbed.
The group compiled a 40-page dossier of the scientific research on the benefits of spaced learning that they plan to present to School Board members by October 28.
The summer learning loss is pretty well known. Parents and students are concerned about having eight-month gaps in classes like math or foreign language.
For example, Alison Visokay mentions her son Adam, a junior at Albemarle High. Most of his classes are AP, which meet every other day for the entire year, but he wasn't able to get the 4X4 honors trigonometry he wanted this fall, which means a gap from last year's algebra 2 until January. And he's got the same situation with honors French 4, another class he won't be able to take until spring. "He's worried he's going to lose a lot of that," says Visokay.
"My son is pretty tired of physics every day," says Albemarle spokeswoman Brown. "But he has German every day and loves it."
The speed with which the School Board decided on the compressed classes is another factor that irks the Albemarle county parents accustomed to a process that typically allows multiple public hearings before any major change.
"We're very process oriented," acknowledges Superintendent Moran. "There's a big price any time you make a change of this magnitude."
And with the sudden schedule change and teachers who haven't seen a raise being asked for more work, "You have a perfect storm," says Moran.
Despite the pleas of some parents, the Board of Supervisors, which obtained a more conservative majority in last year's election, refused to increase property taxes, and Moran doesn't mince words about her view of all the cost-cutting.
"We're cutting into the marrow of this school division," she says.
Moran suggests an inquiry to Charlottesville, Louisa, Nelson or Fluvanna, all of which have some version of the block hybrid model.
"No issue," says the city's Gertrude Ivory. "We've had a modified block scheduling in high school since I came here in 2004." And this fall, the city moved to that schedule in its middle school as well.
Ian Prum, a junior at Albemarle high, says his 4x4 physics class is going fine, "just a little rushed." And he's not thrilled about the homework every day. He, too, has a gap in German from last May until January. "I'm worried about forgetting some," he says.
Prum liked the scheduling last year better, but says, "I think there's not as many negatives as people say. They don't like it because people are hesitant to change." He adds, "Overall, I'm not sure the positive aspects are greater than the negatives."
The Albemarle School Board agreed to a work session on the issue in early November.
Updated 10/25/10 with the correct spelling of Lori Balaban's name.
Updated 10:15am 10/26/10 with the latest number of petition signatures.