On May 17, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) School Board will consider aligning all high schools in the school district by moving them to a block schedule. Here’s what you need to know. (This piece was updated on May 17th to reflect the school board meeting on May 16th.)

What happened at the school board meeting on May 16?

The slides for the school board meeting are here and contain example scenarios with block scheduling.

Last night, there was a lengthy public comment period, with people voicing support for keeping the existing schedule and for moving to the new schedule. Several members of Equity4Education spoke in favor of the 4×4 block. Among the reasons were that it will help kids participate more fully in high school to community college pathways, there are more opportunities for deep learning, and flex time gives the possibility for review time during school hours – meaning less homework and stress for students.

Among the concerns raised were adequate time for the arts, the current lack of transportation to Durham Tech if students want to dual enroll, how this will affect AP coursework and studying, and adequate preparation time for teachers.

The presentation given answered many of these questions – this is something other districts around the state and country have managed – and raised several more questions from the board about teacher buy-in, flex time, and how to make these changes thoughtfully.

The board voted 4-3 to move their vote to the next meeting so that they could properly digest the information presented to them in the slides and presentation. The board has a work session on June 6 and a regular meeting on June 20.

What exists now?

Currently, the high schools have various types of bell schedules. Phoenix Academy is on a full block, CHS is on a modified block schedule, and CHHS and ECHHS are on a traditional 7 period day schedule, which you can see below.

An audit performed in 2023 pointed to these conflicting bell schedules as an equity concern because it makes it difficult for high school students who want to take a course at a different high school or cross-enroll, or who need services offered at a different high school.

What options are on the table?

There are various ways to make a high school schedule. There’s the traditional seven-period schedule, where students take the same seven courses all year long. And there’s different block approaches – one is 4×4 where students take 4 courses one half of the year, followed by 4 different courses the second half of the year. The other is A/B, where students take one set of 4 courses on MW and a different set on TTh, with some flex time built in on Fridays (or a different day of the week.)

There are also ways to combine these approaches to add flexibility. The school district’s high school scheduling assessment (HSSA) guiding committee assessed 12 different approaches, which were each given a weighted score according to the criteria starting on page 64 here.

What’s happened so far?

In August 2023, the School Board approved the CHCCS administration’s request to investigate high school schedules. They brought in a consultant (TregoEd) the following month to lead the process and interview students, teachers, administrators, counselors, and parents from the high school scheduling assessment (HSSA) guiding committee, and perform an evaluation. That process has been going on for the past nine months.

TregoEd compiled all of the feedback they received – on topics like access to academic programming, course-specific considerations, daily routines, length of class periods, lunch time, social-emotional support, absences, student support, teacher support and workload, and parent feedback into a very large 134 -page document summary. The summary also includes feedback from AVID and the ML/Newcomers group.

The Board held a work session on May 2 (video) to talk through the schedule assessment.

Can you summarize the 134 page report?

No – it’s really long and nuanced and it’s a quick scan – so if you’re interested in this topic, I recommend scanning it.

Each section of the feedback document lists pros and cons for the existing schedule and the possible new schedules. There’s a lot of good feedback around mental health, pacing, course transitions, and homework loads and some good questions like:

  • What does this mean for AP students who take a course in the fall and don’t see the material again until the spring?
  • What does this mean for math or foreign languages, where consistency is key?
  • What does this mean for CTE programs like automotive that require a certain number of hours for national accreditation?
  • What does this mean for absences?
  • What’s the sweet spot between 50 minutes and 90 minutes?
  • How will teachers prep for these longer periods of time?

What did the guiding committee recommend?

Each member of the guiding committee was asked to rank their top schedule choices. The first choice for 3 of the 5 groups was the combination of A/B and 4×4 with Flex 2xWeek schedule. (You can see school districts that have adopted this model here.)

What has the administration proposed?

They have proposed the 4×4 block with short classes and a daily flex. (You can see school districts that have adopted this model here.) They list pros and cons for this model starting on page 131 of this document. This schedule was in the top 5 of the guiding committee’s recommendations, but none of the groups ranked it as their first choice, and 4 of the 5 groups ranked it as their 4th or 5th choice. (In other words, they saw it as the least good option of all of the block schedules presented.)

Does the school board have to adopt what the administration has proposed?

No, they can choose to adopt any of the recommendations – or to push off their decision tomorrow night when they meet. They can also choose a more flexible schedule like the one that the guiding committee members recommended, with a combined 4×4 and A/B flex schedule, which could allow for more flexibility for AP students, athletes, CTE students, and others.

Are there ways to provide flexibility with a block schedule?

Yes, there are. You can have a “skinny” class that’s offered all year, or you can modify the block schedule to be A/B where students have some courses on Day A and some on Day B, with flex or lunch built in. I highly recommend reviewing the document, because there are visual models for each option – and they help show the variations that exist.

What would happen next?

Nothing would be implemented until the next school year (2025-2026), which would give the district the ability to mitigate risks and address issues. Many other school districts across the country – including many of the top performing districts nationwide – have adopted block scheduling, which means the (imo, very good) questions that parents and teachers have raised can be addressed and evaluated based on what other school districts have done. The document also mentions professional development, developing an evaluation model, and learning from other high schools nearby, along with ensuring that students aren’t overwhelmed. That seems really necessary, especially when you read through the summary document and realize a TON of students are talking about how stressful this all is. 

What do you, Melody Kramer, think about all of this?

I’ll preface: I have no academic education background. But like many people engaged in this issue, I take an interest in our public school system because I care about public schools and I have kids (first grade, incoming K) enrolled – so this is on the horizon but not immediately. I had a traditional schedule at my public high school, which has since switched to A/B 4:4 flex blocks, and my spouse had A/B 4:4 flex blocks in her public high school. 

There are pros and cons to each, and a lot of the academic literature on this subject is not particularly recent and seems like “six of one, half dozen of the other.” (In other words, they also say there are pros and cons to each approach.)  Many school districts in the country have adopted some form of block scheduling, including top school districts that consistently rank in the top 100 nationally.

I don’t want to be a pollyanna about this. There are completely valid questions about this process being raised – AP coursework and testing, CTE coursework and accreditation, and how teachers will manage prep and curriculum as it changes.

My hope is that tomorrow night, the school board focuses not on “block or not” – but on the many questions and concerns parents and teachers have, and that they come up with a flexible, modified schedule that a) considers all of these concerns and b) can provide answers — or at least an approach to answering — all of these questions.

Right now, there’s a disconnect between what the administration has proposed (4:4 flex) and what parents/teachers/students recommended in their sessions (4:4 A/B flex)  – but these aren’t so far removed from each other as to be non-negotiable. I hope the discussion tomorrow night revolves around mitigating these pain points, and ensuring that every high school student can learn and grow to their fullest potential. 

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Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....