What could Gunn High School's bell schedule look like in the next year or two?
A group of students, parents, teachers and administrators gathered in Gunn's Titan Gym Monday night to discuss potential answers to this question, supplemented by research that supports shifting to a new block schedule.
Gunn's Creative Scheduling Committee, made up of seven students, five parents and 11 staff members, is in the midst of an accelerated timeline that could bring a new schedule to the school by January 2016, Principal Denise Herrmann has said.
Gunn currently operates on a modified block schedule, with five or six classes meeting in 58-minute periods each day, broken up by a 12-minute brunch and 39-minute lunch. Tutorial, an optional open period during which, ideally, students will seek extra help from teachers, is offered once a week during the last period of the day on Tuesday afternoons.
Denise Pope, co-founder of education and youth well-being research group Challenge Success and a lecturer at the Stanford School of Education, explained the benefits behind moving to a more relaxed, flexible block schedule under which classes meet less frequently but for longer periods of time and other things like tutorial, social emotional learning and teacher collaboration. Challenge Success has helped more than 20 high schools switch to new bell schedules, she said.
Pope said the research around a later school start time is "almost incontrovertible." About 80 percent of teenagers don't get the eight to 10 hours of sleep they need each night, she said.
"A lot of that has to do with their schedules (and) a lot with factors beyond the school's control, but there is something the schools can control and that is the start time," she added.
Though the regular school day at Gunn begins at 8:25 a.m., about 300 students are currently enrolled in zero-period classes, both academic and physical education, that meet at 7:20 a.m.
After about a month of community conversation about the detrimental impact that starting school earlier than is recommended can have on teen sleep and mental health (and on the flip side, the stress-reducing effects claimed by students for having more choice to shape their schedules), Superintendent Max McGee said last week that there will no longer be academic classes offered during this early morning period. Physical education and Gunn's broadcast news class will still be offered.
Herrmann stressed Monday night that the scheduling committee was not involved in making this decision, but its recommendations will be aligned with McGee's charge.
Bell schedule committee members said Monday night that Gunn's start time will likely stay the same, around 8:30 a.m., but there could be one or two days a week where the day starts even later. Other Bay Area schools have late start times in place (anywhere from 8:45 to 9:10 a.m.) once or several times a week to allow for teacher collaboration time and extra time to sleep for the students. Gunn currently has no built-in time for teachers to work with each other outside of weekly staff and/or department meetings. (Teachers do have prep periods, but they could be at a different time from other teachers in their department.)
"Making these kind of shifts can fundamentally change a really good school to an even better school," Pope said.
Pope cited numerous studies that have shown the benefits of a block or modified block schedule, including increased standardized test scores, improved mental health, better attendance, less cheating, increase in motivation and engagement, closer student-teacher connection and lighter homework loads (since classes meet less frequently, and longer periods can sometimes allow for students to start homework in class).
One study that looked at a group of high school students before and after their school moved to a later start time found that the students got an average of 45 minutes more of sleep, were significantly less depressed and irritated and more motivated to engage in after-school activities and socialize outside of school, Pope said.
The bell schedule committee is also looking at whether or not to keep Gunn's fixed "G" prep period at the end of the day, which many student-athletes enroll in so as to not miss class when they have to leave early for games. Pope said it's best to have a rotating schedule, so students who have to leave early aren't always missing the same class.
Pope said the research is mixed about the appropriate length for the longer block periods, but 70 to 90 minutes is considered optimal. Gunn math teacher Chris Redfield, who's serving on the bell schedule committee, said the group has narrowed it down to looking at 75- to 90-minute block periods, which allows for more varied instruction, project-based learning and time for students to delve deeper into subjects. Longer periods also mean less hurried transition between classes.
In response to an audience question about how longer periods affect students with learning disabilities like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Pope said more time means teachers are able to differentiate and spend more time with students who need extra support.
Tutorial will likely be embedded in the middle of the day more than once a week to allow students more time throughout the week to work with teachers or other students outside of class. Moving it to the middle of the day will hopefully cut down on the number of students who currently opt not to go since as the last period of the day, not attending means ending the school day an hour earlier.
Redfield said it could be a mandatory period but the content would be flexible, including programs like freshman orientation, Titan 101 or social-emotional learning.
Despite myriad proven benefits for both students and teachers, many Gunn teachers are anxious that they'll be asked to make the extensive shifts necessary in their lesson plans and curriculum in a shorter time frame than is ideal. This anxiety is coming up against a sense of urgency in the community to find concrete ways to decrease student stress as soon as possible.
"I really, really, really want to put it out there for everybody to really hear and get that if we are told to start this in August there is going to be, I believe, a semi-disaster," one teacher said Monday.
Pope said that most schools her organization has worked with took a year or two to fully implement their new schedules. Without thoughtful implementation and fully prepared teachers, any new schedule, regardless of how its structured, will not provide the benefits she described Monday night, Pope said.
"I think we need that year," the teacher said.
Redfield, however, said he's come around to thinking that if the committee comes to a consensus on a well-thought out schedule that will benefit students, it should be implemented "as soon as practical."
Herrmann said the district has committed to providing increased professional development for Gunn teachers in advance of a schedule shift at the end of this school year, over the summer and continuing into the 2015-16 school year.
The scheduling committee is on a tight timeline, with an end goal of presenting recommendations to the school board on May 12. The group posted four potential models it's looking at on its website this week: 75-minute rotating periods with afternoon collaboration and meeting time; 75-minute rotating periods with morning collaboration and meeting time; and two different 90-minute period models.
The committee is also seeking further feedback from the community, which can be provided via a Google form posted on a "contact us" tab. Members said Monday that they are particularly eager to hear where the community lands on the number of classes per day and length of periods; frequency of and access to tutorial; if social-emotional learning should be embedded into the schedule and how frequently; and on start and end times.