Mastering the Middle School Schedule

Welcome to 2021! Continuing the Middle-Level Leadership Matters series, NAESP Center for Middle-Level Leadership fellows Kevin Armstrong and Jessica Cabeen talk “Mastering the Middle School Schedule.”

During all the recent transitions—starts, restarts, scrapping and reinventing our schedules during the fall of 2020 instead of moving forward right away—Armstrong and Cabeen have taken time to reflect on their learning and implications for moving forward in restructuring master schedules for the 2021-2022 school year.

Questions to Consider

At Ellis Middle School (Cabeen), we had been running a seven-period day for as long as I could remember. Moving into August 2020, we realized a hybrid model (students in school two days a week and at home the remaining three days) would be a significant challenge for teachers, students, and families.

Our school counselors, assistant principal, and teachers went to work to create a “mini-master” schedule. Our seven-period day turned into an eight-period day and then we flipped it to a block schedule. Students took four courses per quarter for two quarters during an 88-minute block. This significant change warranted reflection in the winter of 2020 as we looked ahead to the 2021-2022 school year. Seeing positive impacts from this schedule, we implemented a modified block for the 2021-22 school year. As we are building (like literally right now building it), we’re working through these questions:

  • What have you liked about teaching in a block schedule this year?
  • What have you learned about teaching in a block schedule this year?
  • What do you have questions about in moving toward a modified block for the 2021-2022 school year?

By being upfront and seeking clarity to the questions stakeholders might offer an implementation that decreases anxiety and provides valuable information as we start to look at professional development to support this transition.

At DuPont Hadley Middle School (Armstrong), due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to go to a six-period A Day/B Day schedule, where the first half of the day was synchronous. After lunch was entirely asynchronous. A month in, we determined that our schedule was not effective as our students were not taking advantage of asynchronous opportunities and instead were treating the school day as half days. How do we know? Our student participation and grades told the story.

Near the end of the first nine-week period, our administrative team went into the lab and created a schedule that we felt met the needs of our students. We kept the six-period A Day/B Day schedule, but the new schedule allowed for all six classes to meet daily with every other period being asynchronous. Our teachers could keep a closer tab on students while allowing students opportunities to check in with them on missing assignments and other pertinent questions.

Spring 2021 will bring an opportunity for us to create multiple schedules to prepare us for the start of the 2021-2022 school year. As we are building, we’re working through these questions:

  • What have you liked about teaching in a six-period A Day/B Day schedule this year?
  • What have you learned about teaching in a six-period A Day/B Day schedule this year?
  • What questions do you have as we move toward the 2021-2022 school year?

The answers to these questions will drive in-house professional development offerings for summer 2021 in preparation for the next school year. What you value matters—common planning time; advisories; and block, electives, and enrichment (REACH/AVID)—and should show on your board.

People to Involve

If nothing else, COVID-19 taught me (Cabeen) that there is really no reason to reinvent the wheel and to look for more opportunities to leverage being a connected educator in our favor. Looking to other middle school leaders who have discussed their master schedules has been invaluable to our transition.

An initial blog post by Joe Truss planted the seed to start looking at scheduling differently. Connecting with other middle school principals on social media was incredibly valuable. Reaching out to our state listservs to see sample schedules helped narrow our view. The true tipping point for me was a series of emails and documents nearby middle school principal Julie Sullivan shared with me. That partnership led to resource sharing between teachers and future collaboration with colleagues within driving distance.

COVID-19 put us all in positions where we understood we couldn’t do this alone. This created an opportunity for me to be a part of a small circle of middle school leaders in my district. We motivate each other, pray for one another, and are there we venting is necessary. Most important, we share our master schedules and are candid about what has worked and what hasn’t.

Perspectives to Remember

In the busyness of building a master schedule, either from year to year or from the ground up, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with data, requests, concerns, or questions. Be sure to maintain your “why” and the school’s mission when making every move. For us at Ellis (Cabeen), our mantra is “Expect the Best,” and never more than the upcoming year do we need to remember that our students (and us) have survived a pandemic. What we have learned during the last year will have lasting effects on our academic and social skills while potentially providing us new ways to teach and learn when we return to in person learning five days a week.

The foundation of every good master schedule is one that is student-centered. Some principals make the critical error of creating schedules that benefit administrators and teachers. Such schedules may be last years’ schedule, or even worse, using the same schedule that has been in existence for years. At Hadley (Armstrong), our schedule is partly based on student survey responses, where we look into student interests. New Related Arts courses, weekly clubs, and town hall meetings are all examples of items that are in our current master schedule and stemmed from student survey results. The current pandemic has only enhanced our connection with our students in an effort to ensure that they feel heard and feel a part of our campus, albeit virtually.

Keep the Conversation Going

Have additional ideas or insight? Please join in the conversation on social media and tag Armstrong (@DrKDArmstrong) or Cabeen (@JessicaCabeen) with #naespMLL to share resources and keep the conversation going.