Failing grades blamed on schedule change at Deer Isle-Stonington High School

Deer Isle-Stonington High School Principal Todd West (right) visits a technology class in 2010 to work with Alec Eaton (left) of Deer Isle and Curtis Weed of Stonington as they created a map of Maine public schools.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Deer Isle-Stonington High School Principal Todd West (right) visits a technology class in 2010 to work with Alec Eaton (left) of Deer Isle and Curtis Weed of Stonington as they created a map of Maine public schools. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 10, 2012, at 7:40 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 11, 2012, at 7:24 a.m.

DEER ISLE, Maine — Less than a year after switching to a new schedule amid concerns over gaps in learning, Deer Isle-Stonington High School is seeing an alarming rise in the number of failing grades as some students struggle to adapt, according to school officials.

And now some parents, teachers and students are urging school administrators to find a schedule better suited to the challenges of a small island school already struggling with relatively low graduation rates.

Last winter, members of the local school committee voted to switch from a “four-by-four block schedule,” in which students take four 80-minute classes each semester, to an alternating days system.

Dubbed the “blue-and-white” schedule at Deer Isle-Stonington, the new system allows students to take up to eight courses that may last all year long, with classes often meeting every other day for 70 minutes. But while the blue-and-white system eliminates potential gaps if a student only took math or another subject every other semester, some students are having problems adjusting to the combination of more classes and alternating days.

Todd West, principal at Deer Isle-Stonington High, said the number of students failing multiple courses and the total number of failed credits has increased since last year. Additionally, some students are failing by wider margins than in recent years, creating a situation where more students will have to retake courses.

West, who presented his findings to the Deer Isle-Stonington CSD committee this week, said he anticipated that some students would struggle and receive failing grades in the new system.

“I didn’t expect that there would be quite as many failures,” West said during an interview on Friday. “And it wasn’t just that kids failed classes. It was kids failed classes with a grade of, like, 27 which we haven’t seen in a number of years.”

And West said he does not believe it is just a matter of a first-year adjustment because even some freshmen who never experienced the four-by-four schedule are struggling.

The school has a robust support system for struggling students, West said.

Scheduling has been a hotly debated topic in education for years as schools around the nation experiment with different systems. The Maine Department of Education does not keep track of which schools use which system, but “block schedules” that feature longer class periods are fairly common in the state.

The Deer Isle-Stonington CSD committee voted last year to adopt the alternating days schedule over the objections of students and faculty at the school.

Deer Isle-Stonington High also faces some unique challenges. With less than 150 students, the school already struggles to offer the array of classes that students need to graduate and succeed. In the past, Deer Isle-Stonington also had one of the lowest graduate rates in Maine, and in 2010 it was designated by the state as one of 10 “persistently low-achieving” schools, a designation that West and teachers have been working hard to correct.

During last Tuesday’s school committee meeting, several parents and teachers criticized the board for last year’s vote, which followed several years of back-and-forth discussion and inaction over the scheduling issue.

Katy Helman, an art teacher at the school, said she sees more students unprepared on a daily basis and that she believes the pace of learning has actually slowed under the new system. The difference “is like night and day,” she said.

“I would go back to the other schedule in a nanosecond,” she said. “I just think it is better for all of us.”

One parent with three children in the school system, who declined to give her name, said the discussion leading up to last year’s vote was all about college-bound kids. But she said the new system is hurting many other students.

“I’m sorry it has to come to this but I have come, once again, to say please reconsider this,” she told the committee.

Committee members appeared swayed by West’s figures as well as the comments of parents, teachers and a few students. Although no clear action was taken, in part because of confusion over the parliamentary process, several committee members seemed strongly inclined to direct West to explore other options.

For his part, West noted that the previous scheduling task force had spent two years looking at alternative schedules and didn’t come up with a plan that everyone supported. He told board members on Tuesday and repeated Friday that scheduling would not be his top priority when making changes to improve the quality of education at the school.

West said research shows that the quality and strength of a school’s curriculum and how well it is taught are the biggest factors.

“That is much more important than scheduling,” he said.

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