Stay tuned Parents rally for music program; board to continue schedule change talks Jan. 23

By on January 11, 2012

By: GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

Parents concerned with the vitality of Ephrata High School’s music program attended school board committee meetings Monday to slow the process of a district plan to expand the length of instructional periods.

The collective concern centers on the prospect of moving music programs to the end of the day and how that will impact students’ ability to remain in those programs. A secondary concern, for many, was the feeling that parents were not adequately informed of the proposed changes.

During Monday night’s discussion, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Brian Troop explained that the music program would not be considered an after school program.

"(The music courses) would be placed during the Academic Coaching Time (ACT) which is at the end of the day," Troop clarified. "I want to be clear, none of the scenarios considered or presented moves the music program to an extracurricular program. Times could be adjusted slightly from the present ACT time depending on which scenario you are looking at. All three versions of the sixth period schedule provide students with the opportunity of selecting 16 semester electives over their high school career and a daily 26 minute study hall/advisory period."

Currently, the high school schedule consists of seven periods, each 47 minutes long. Under the proposed changes, that schedule would change to six periods, each 56 minutes long, with four minutes of transition between classes and a 26 minute study hall/advisory period. Academic Coaching Time (or ACT) occurs from 2:25 to 3:10 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with activity busses running on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Athletic practices begin between 3:15 and 3:30.

Troop explained to parents that the proposed schedule adjustment was being considered in conjunction with graduation requirement changes, one of which would make Safety Ed an elective rather than a requirement. The district would also reduce the number of credits required in physical education/health wellness training.

Committee meetings on the possible changes began in August. Principal Joane Eby added that a team of 28 high school teachers have been actively involved with developing the three possible scheduling scenarios currently under consideration. In addition, throughout the year so far, the balance of the high school faculty has been kept up-to-speed with the effort through regular meetings.

In a PowerPoint presentation to the board and parents, Troop outlined the rationale behind the concept, explaining that first and foremost is the effort to promote continuous improvement of student performance by examining current practices and identifying ways to better overall instructional effectiveness.

In addition, Troop pointed to shrinking fiscal resources forcing the district to do more with less. He said increased expectations for district accountability to provide higher levels of proficiency, increased rigor demanded by the new Keystone exams, new methods of calculating graduation rates and new methods for reporting school effectiveness support the rationale for a schedule change.

"An increased amount of competition has been placed on our graduates," said Troop, pointing to the importance of the high school program in connection with scholarships, college and post high school training, job opportunities and academic programs within universities.

Eby further explained that the mission of the work was to develop a schedule that provided more time in core instructional areas while offering opportunities for advisory, study skills, enrichment and support. The schedule change would also require fewer academic transitions for the students throughout the day while affording options for future flexibility for certain classes to meet for extended times or adhere to non-traditional scheduling blocks. The administration is also considering various technology-assisted instructional models which might help the overall mission.

Three different scenarios were presented, each to mixed reviews from the parents present.

Under the first scenario, moving music such as choir, band and orchestra to the ACT period at the end of the day would help the music students avoid frequent schedule conflicts with world languages classes. The other two scenarios would keep music courses within the six-period structure, but could impact when those students could complete their physical education requirements or the number of periods students might have for study halls or electives. Troop noted that this would also give the option for a double period when called for to assist those students in need of extra help in a subject.

"Nine additional minutes per period may not seem like much, but over time this is significant," Troop said, explaining that doing so would tighten the gap between required and optional courses.

But the parents in attendance were not sold on the idea. Thus far, the administration has met with music students and a group of parents to review the scenarios being considered.

Parents voiced a number of different issues and concerns, not only with the proposed changes, but also the manner in which the school district has brought parents on board with the issue. Many felt that they had been kept in the dark, saying that news of the proposed change was leaked to some of them as recently as late last week. District officials said the matter had not been kept under a lid, explaining that nothing official could be done before the board had been presented with a proposal.

Betty Heydt, president of the band parents group, expressed concerns about the impact of the new schedule, especially the first scenario which would move music instruction to the ACT period at the end of the day. She said she feared that the music program could lose up to half of its students, referring to those with transportation, family, part-time jobs and extra-curricular sports issues.

Parents also questioned Eby on the length of the school day, citing students’ contention that class periods are already long enough. One parent said they had received reports that some teachers already routinely stop teaching 10 minutes before the end of class while others continue to lecture right up to the very end. Eby said she absolutely felt the student could handle the additional nine minutes of class time per period, adding that the instructional time was critical.

"I think the obligation of high school is to at least adequately prepare our kids for the next step (whatever that might be)," said Eva and Bernie Lynch in an e-mail. "In addition to exemplary academics, these ‘extras’ are the things that colleges are looking for in the students they offer admittance to. In moving band to an after school slot, you are forcing students to choose either only band or several assorted other activities. Colleges and universities are looking for well-roundedness. We have heard this over and over. According to Mrs Eby, over 60 percent of EHS music students pursue higher education. You are effectively targeting this population to fail!"

One thing parents who attended Monday’s meeting felt was lacking in the school’s presentation was the hard data to support such a change. Eby conceded that schools that had moved to block scheduling felt scores had improved, but lacked hard data to determine if the improved scores were tied directly to the schedule or to other strategic and academic enhancements put in place. Troop, however, clarified that block scheduling is not exactly what is being considered, explaining that typical block scheduling has class periods lasting in excess of one hour.

Parents were also concerned about the pace at which this huge change seemed to be moving toward implementation. Ideally, the administration would like to green light the move to six periods in time for the 2012-2013 school year; however, with course selection about to begin in a matter of weeks, Troop added that at some point, if action cannot be taken, the matter may need to be tabled for consideration in the next academic year.

School Board President Tim Stayer stressed repeatedly that the purpose of Monday night’s discussion was simply to bring the board up to speed on the effort and not a precursor to board action. Later, he invited those present to return in two weeks to the voting session at which he said additional time to discuss the matter could be afforded. That move encouraged a number of parents who had been led to believe the new schedule was a done deal. Stayer reassured parents this was not the case.

Nonetheless, parents called on the district to table the discussion for another year in order to allow more time to make sure the change, whatever that may be, is done right. They also expressed hope that in so doing the impact of what they view as a monumental shift would be less traumatic on the students. Parents would like to see further data to support such a change. They would also like the district to take the time to address their myriad of questions regarding the overall impact.

To that end, those present reiterated concerns that so few high school parents had been made aware of the possibility of a schedule change. They pointed to the fact that music students had been brought up to speed due to the possible impact the change would have on them; however, the various scenarios were viewed as having a far greater impact on the student population than simply a change in the way music instruction might be offered.

"The issue really goes beyond what the impact may be on music students," said one parent who asked to remain anonymous. That parent echoed the sentiments of several parents who are concerned that class times may already be longer than necessary. And they are concerned that the proposed change may be more about trying to raise the assessment scores of struggling students at the cost of all students.

Another parent, with a child in eighth grade who is about to complete course selection for his freshman year, expressed the same concern.

"You would be amazed how many parents would be here if they knew about it," she said. "You couldn’t hold the meeting in this room if they did. This is their future. As a parent of an eighth grader, I feel we were left out. We were not given a survey. We have no say. Thank God a high school parent gave us the heads-up."

While those parents present raised a number of questions and concerns, they also expressed a willingness to reserve judgment on the final outcome.

"We are all here because we all care about our school and want the best for our kids and future generations of Ephrata. We are a team," said Lisa Hochreiter.

Suzy Creighton agreed.

"What are our students’ abilities to focus the entire day," she said. "What is the effect on the student if you take away the diversions through the day? There are no real statistics to show that if we delete a class here and lengthen the period there that it will have an impact. When I hear that some teachers stop teaching 10 minutes before class or who lecture the entire time, I question how lengthening the class period is going to help in that scenario. I question whether the accountability will be there to hold the teachers to those longer class periods. In the end, we need to have classes that are relevant, fun and make our students want to continue coming to class."

"We are looking at this from so many different viewpoints," Hochreiter added. "Research says it is about a 50/50 match between the pros and the cons. I think so many things are going well in a district that is doing quite well in spite of the challenges we face. Ephrata has a strong curriculum. I don’t think six months is a long enough period and I have far more questions than we can cover tonight. Six months is not enough time to do this justice. With the parents, with the students, with the faculty, with the school board … not all players are on board as of yet."

Stayer closed that portion of the meeting by strongly encouraging all concerned parents to attend the Jan. 23 school board meeting to further discuss the proposals and offer their input.

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