HOULTON, Maine — In 1997, Houlton High School switched from its more than five decades old practice of having seven approximately 40 minute class periods a day to students attending classes in 80-minute blocks on alternating days.
With block scheduling, only half the number of classes are offered on one day and the remaining classes are offered the next day.
Last week, Principal Marty Bouchard told the SAD 29 school board that teachers at the school are divided over block scheduling and that a number of them feel it would be best to go back to the traditional schedule.
In an effort to determine which method is most effective in educating students, Bouchard last year began gathering data and surveying teachers.
SAD 29 educates roughly 1,300 students from Houlton, Hammond, Littleton and Monticello, and the high school caters to students in grades 7 through 12.
The full block scheduling has been used on grades 9-12 since the changeover in 1997. But after teachers and administrators determined that full block scheduling was not working for seventh- and eighth-graders, that age group in 2003 went to a modified block format that featured traditional scheduling the majority of the week.
On March 14, Bouchard told the school board that he found the junior high staff is happier with their schedule and want to keep it. The grade 12 teachers are split over the matter, while the majority of the grade 11 teachers favor block scheduling. Nearly all of the sophomore teachers favor block scheduling, while all of the freshman teachers want the traditional schedule back. In total, Bouchard estimated that 60 percent of the junior high and high school teachers were in favor of the traditional schedule and 40 percent were not.
There are pros and cons to block scheduling, Bouchard acknowledged. Teachers have more time for lectures and special projects, but it also can be detrimental to students with short attention spans. Teachers also lose day-to-day contact with students, and students sometimes forget their assignments since they don’t see their teachers every day.
But it also adds teaching time to the day, because students do not change classes as often. Bouchard said that under block scheduling, students spend 16 minutes a day changing classes. With the traditional schedule, they spend 28 minutes a day walking through the corridors changing classes.
“Some teachers and staff believe that increasing the time it takes to change classes is a bad idea,” he said. “That is the time when some kids get into trouble and when vandalism and other misbehavior occurs.”
While some might think it would be easy to switch back to the traditional schedule, Bouchard said that the perception is wrong.
When the school went to block scheduling, he explained, they increased the number of credits that students needed to graduate because the school was able to offer more elective classes. The school has added a wealth of new elective courses over the past decade, including interior design, Web page design, outdoor education, psychology, basic piano, women’s health, advanced art and financial fitness.
Prior to block scheduling, students needed 16 credits to graduate. They now need 24.
All five high schools in southern Aroostook County use block scheduling, Bouchard told the board.
Bouchard said that if the school went back to the traditional schedule, administrators would offer fewer electives and likely would have to reduce the number of credits needed to graduate again. If they wanted to keep all of the available electives, he said they likely could not do so without lengthening the school day.
A number of HHS students also take classes at the Southern Aroostook Vocational Education building, which is just a few hundred feet away from the high school. The SAVE building is on the same schedule as the five schools in southern Aroostook, so any change to the HHS schedule would conflict with the SAVE schedule, according to Bouchard.
Superintendent Ray Freve said that he had seen other schools implement a traditional schedule while requiring students to secure 24 or 25 credits to graduate. He said that he believed that Houlton could do it, and said that he was even in favor of taking study hall out of the HHS schedule.
“I would like to do away with study hall,” he said. “To me, that is where students get into trouble. The kids who don’t have anything to do get bored, and many teachers would tell you that they’d rather be in class than watching over a study hall.”
Elizabeth Anderson, the chairman of the SAD 29 board, said that she wanted to know if block scheduling was more successful than the traditional schedule. Bouchard told her that when block scheduling was implemented, the school saw Scholastic Aptitude Test and Maine Educational Assessment test scores increase.
He said that administrators and leadership staff at the high school were considering their options, including looking at a different schedule for ninth graders, since freshman teachers are not happy with block scheduling.
“We will continue the discussion,” Bouchard told the board. “We are dealing with a lot of factors and a lot of strong opinions. This isn’t easy.”