The power of community involvement – River Forest Middle School backs away from block scheduling.
It was almost one year ago when over one hundred River Forest parents and community members and several middle school teachers showed up to D90 Board of Education community feedback session. The board’s impending vote to adopt block scheduling at the Middle School was the focus; however, there was confusion among many in the community why a high performing district would undertake sweeping and rapid change in curriculum, instruction, scheduling and grading systems. Some claimed changes were being foisted upon families with insufficient evidence, communication and forethought. Proponents argued the district had been discussing upcoming changes for some time. One-year later, the administration is proposing what looks like an effective compromise without block scheduling.
The original proposal involved switching from eight forty-minute classes to four eighty-five minute classes per day. A new math curriculum and the need for more minutes of math instruction was at the center of the district’s explanation, along with more time in other subjects for project-based learning and other demands on time with the all new K-8 student-centered curricula. District 90 Middle School Students have, in recent years, been receiving 40 daily minutes of mathematics instruction, which lags behind the state average of 60 minutes and was cited by administrators as hampering teachers' abilities to effectively prepare students for increasingly rigorous math standards. Though, the attempt to address math was having a wider impact on the broader schedule.
Once details of the scheduling proposal became more widely known in the community, due largely to local social media discussions, the community began circulating petitions demanding a harder look at the changes. One major concern was no public discussion of dismantling a highly regarded, successful, and popular foreign language program. Another was reduced student access to exploratory classes such as art and music. The administration agreed to explore the issue further, created a community survey of family priorities, and for the last several months has been working to find alternatives to the initially proposed schedule - a task further complicated by the Middle School’s unusual Grade 5-8 set-up.
The alternative proposal was formally presented at the D90 Board of Education Business meeting on Monday, December 16th. The slide deck pertaining to the schedule changes can be accessed here. Many proposals were considered, including several which would have extended the school day and required hiring several teachers. In the end, the final proposal is a measured one, eliminating the block schedule and specifically targeting one problem cited by administration - insufficient math instructional time coupled with inadequate math preparation for students going into high school. In this instance, Principal Larry Garstki and team were able to target the math topic with near surgical precision while preserving the integrity of other Middle School programming. Specific proposed changes involve:
1) Hiring 2 more math teachers leading to decreased math class sizes across all grades by approximately 30%;
2) Continued emphasis on educator and curricular development;
3) Introduction of an optional "AM Math Academy" - a before-school math support/enrichment program;
4) No other changes to the daily instructional structure or schedule.
The proposed changes will require some further development. The morning (8:00-8:25am) Math Academy's structure and curriculum still needs to be developed, as do formal and informal eligibility criteria. Two teachers will need to be identified and hired, and the teacher/curriculum development will be a dynamic, ongoing, and long-term process. The proposed plan will be put to a D90 Board of Education for vote on January 7th, 2020.
Still, the new set of proposed changes demonstrate the importance and power of community involvement and the dedication and ingenuity of Roosevelt leadership and D90 administration