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    A boost to learning?

    Several high schools in Pinellas County are considering 4-by-4 scheduling, which offers four 90-minute classes in a 9-week grading period. Advocates say longer classes help students learn better.

    [Times photos: Jim Damaske]
    Largo High School senior Brandy Otto, left, gets help from fellow student Alana Medlin, right, with the ice cream treat they had for having all A's in the last grading period.

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2001


    With growing attention on public school accountability, a few high school educators have been kicking around a new idea.

    A cutting-edge teaching strategy, or perhaps a newfangled classroom plan?

    Not exactly.

    photo
    Largo High students Chris West and Mark Aristiziabal work on the board in a combined English One and One Honors class led by Susan Hoffacker, right.
    The key to boosting student performance is pretty basic, they say: longer classes.

    It's called 4-by-4 scheduling, a form of block scheduling that offers four 90-minute classes rather than six 50-minute classes.

    Three Pinellas high schools -- Largo, Seminole and Tarpon Springs -- already have 4-by-4 scheduling. Dixie Hollins, Lakewood and Northeast High are thinking about giving it a shot. And Boca Ciega High plans to begin to 4-by-4 scheduling this fall.

    According to Boca Ciega Principal Barbara Paonessa, the decision wasn't a hasty one.

    "We've actually been looking at it for two years. One reason is that having 4-by-4 gives students a lot more opportunities to explore academic and special interests," she said.

    How is that possible when students take four classes a day instead of six?

    Because in 4-by-4 scheduling, the school year is divided into four quarters instead of two semesters. That means that the same one-credit course that takes a whole school year to complete in the standard system can be finished in 18 weeks in a 4-by-4 schedule. And a half-credit course can be completed in a nine-week quarter. So at the end of four years, students can earn 32 credits instead of 24.

    It's logical, Paonessa said.

    "You can concentrate more fully on four things than you can on six," she said.

    But the real advantage is more time in the classroom and more opportunities for hands-on activities, she said.

    Largo High Principal Barbara Thornton said her school considered block scheduling several years ago because student performance didn't seem to match student ability.

    More than five years ago, leadership teams at Largo, Seminole and Tarpon Springs high schools identified how changing the schedule would impact their routines. For example, she said, exams and grading periods had to be changed to match the new schedule. And not all six-period policies fit 4-by-4 scheduling, she said.

    After the schools got the green light from the district, all began 4-by-4 scheduling in fall 1997.

    With the change, Thornton said educators expected issues to come up that weren't obvious in the planning stage.

    One of the major concerns is that in 4-by-4 scheduling students won't be able to retain material as well or may not perform as well on the SAT and Advanced Placement tests.

    Paonessa said she wondered if students would be able to comprehend a year's worth of work in 18 weeks. But she said her staff looked at research and was confident there wouldn't be a decline in achievement.

    John Nicely, the principal of Tarpon Springs High, said retention in general hasn't been a problem. He worried that students wouldn't do as well on AP tests or on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. So instead of taking a 19-week AP course, his students take the course for a full year, just as they do in a standard schedule.

    Nicely also said all 10th graders take a quarter of English the first half of the year to make sure all are up to speed before the FCAT.

    And all schools that currently have 4-by-4 scheduling offer intensive math and English courses for struggling students.

    Another concern is continuity, especially in math and foreign language courses. Can students retain material when there are two semesters between follow-up classes?

    Critics say no, but Thornton, who has done extensive research at her school says, yes.

    "There's no research to show there's any lag in their development. Over the past four years our student math scores have gone up and our failure rate in algebra has gone down," she said.

    Foreign language students also seem unscathed by the change, she said.

    With School Choice on the horizon, all Pinellas schools have been asked to find ways to attract students, and Tom Hatton, Lakewood High assistant principal, said he thought 4-by-4 scheduling would be a draw for his school.

    Amy Dukes, whose daughter, Jennifer, is a senior at Largo High, said she prefers 4-by-4 scheduling because she thinks students get more time to explore subjects.

    "It's more stimulating. Now they bring up issues and discuss them in depth," she said. "In a regular class, just as things get rolling, they have to leave."

    Each of the schools exploring the new scheduling are at different phases in the process.

    Dixie Hollins is researching several scheduling alternatives, said Deb Fabrizio, assistant principal at Dixie.

    Northeast High is gathering data and is impressed with 4-by-4 scheduling, according to Harry Brown, Northeast High's assistant principal.

    And Lakewood High plans to vote on 4-by-4 scheduling after returning from spring break, Hatton said. If the new scheduling is approved, educators will spend next year planning and training teachers.

    And that's the most important part, according to Thorton.

    Straight lecturing doesn't work in 90-minute classes, so teachers must learn hands-on, interactive strategies for 4-by-4 scheduling.

    "Is the schedule magic? No. It is not the schedule. It's what people do with it that makes it work so well," she said.

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