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Education: New school will also get new class schedules

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Students headed to Pittsburgh's new university-partnership high school in the Hill District next year won't just be switching schools – they'll also be changing schedules.

In an effort to focus more attention on core subject areas (i.e. math, reading), the district will implement "block scheduling," an approach that features fewer, extended class periods each semester.

"The crux of the whole matter is instructional delivery," says Derrick Lopez, the district's chief of high school reform. "[Block scheduling] lets students cover things a mile deep so they can gain and retain knowledge."

Lopez describes the new approach as "a mile deep and inches wide," meaning students and teachers can immerse themselves into their lessons without "swimming in courses." Each semester, students' daily schedules will be filled with three 80-minute core classes, as well as two 40-minute electives (i.e. art, gym). Currently, students throughout most of the district take about eight 40-minute classes each day, including electives.

The new school, which the district hopes to operate with the help of the University of Pittsburgh in the Hill District's Milliones building, will open in the fall with about 150 ninth-graders. In the following years, it will gradually expand into a grade 6-12, citywide magnet. Roughly two-thirds of the school's enrollment will be filled by current eighth-graders who would otherwise be going to Schenley High School, which is closing at the end of the year. But the district is accepting applications from students citywide, with preference given to those who live in the Hill District.

Although not widely used, block scheduling isn't completely foreign to the district. Schenley's International Baccalaureate (IB) program, as well as Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, has used an altered version of it for several years.

According to Lopez, block scheduling will enable teachers to vary their lesson plans so students "don't have to worry about listening to somebody lecture for 80 minutes." For example, he says, teachers can divide the periods into four 20-minute chunks, each with its own focus: reviewing the previous day's lesson, lecturing on a new lesson, working on group projects and playing practice activities.

"Block scheduling makes a lot of sense," says Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an independent community advocate for improving public education. But success "depends on the teacher," she adds, acknowledging that combating students' fading attention spans will require strong lesson planning.

Lopez says the district is currently negotiating with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers to find staffers to fill the eight to 10 openings within the school. "I don't think we'll have difficulty," he says.

As for teachers' sentiment about block scheduling, "It's mixed," says PFT staff representative George Gensure.

"Block scheduling allows for a greater variety in teaching, but it is a bit more challenging," he says. But, "Once teachers try it, they seem to like it a lot better."

Under traditional schedules, Gensure says teachers sometimes must rush through lessons, and students may not have time to completely grasp the concepts. The next day, rather than proceeding to the next lesson, teachers must review the previous day's work.

According to Gensure, the district must train teachers to recalibrate their lessons for the extended periods.

"Teachers have to have professional development to modify their approach," he says. "It does take some conditioning time."

Lopez says the district will offer on-site professional development for teachers.

"We will have lesson study models for teachers," he says. "We are more than willing to support the teachers."

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