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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

College-Style Schedule May Be the Answer for Exit Test

Education: Many schools are following Oak Park High's lead by trying longer class blocks to prepare students for the three-hour state exam.

November 25, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After giving versions of the upcoming exit exam a trial run last May, teachers and principals around Ventura County realized that preparing students would not be easy.

Some say students in schools that offer college-style block schedules may have an advantage in preparing for the state-mandated test.

Block scheduling typically calls for 90-minute, or longer, classes--sometimes offered on alternate days. Proponents say it gives teachers more opportunity to teach the basics, reach struggling students and meet state academic standards. It also helps them develop closer bonds with students and individualize instruction.

"With the high school exit exam, high schools are doing whatever it takes to get students, especially in the ninth grade, up to speed and up to grade level early," said Pat Ainsworth, associate superintendent at the state Department of Education.

"Those longer [class] periods help to facilitate that."

Students in the Class of 2004 will be required to pass the exit exam, a rigorous state test in language arts and math, to graduate from high school. Many schools will begin offering the test in the spring.

Statewide, more than 40% of high schools have some form of block scheduling, and the trend is growing, department officials said. In Ventura County, most high schools have traditional six-period days with 50-minute classes, but several offer classes of 90 or 95 minutes. Others may consider replacing their traditional calendars with the block schedule in coming years.

Students at Oak Park High School alternate classes every other day, with each period lasting about an hour and a half. At Newbury Park High School, students take three 90-minute classes the first term and three the next term. Santa Paula High School has the same calendar, but the classes are an hour and 45 minutes.

Nordhoff High School in Ojai has a modified block schedule, with regular classes Monday through Wednesday, and nearly two-hour classes on Thursday and Friday. At each of the schools, students can also fit shorter elective classes, such as band or student government, into their schedules.

Hueneme High School in Oxnard abandoned its block schedule several years ago after student performance failed to improve and dropout rates increased.

Though teachers are often reluctant to make the calendar changes, research shows that block scheduling helps improve student achievement and raises attendance rates.

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Oak Park High has become a model for schools around the state, with administrators frequently visiting the campus or calling for advice on how to change their schedules. Principal Cliff Moore said he believes the approach is gaining popularity because teachers want a less frenetic school day.

"Lots of teachers have been frustrated by the cookie-cutter approach and not being able to have extended time with students," he said.

The block schedule boosts instructional time and cuts down on discipline problems among the school's 930 students, Moore said. Students don't have the hustle-bustle of several passing periods each day, and teachers only have to take attendance and collect papers every other day.

"In a traditional schedule, it takes five minutes just to get started," said Oak Park English teacher Anne Kimble. "In a 50-minute class, that's a lot of time."

Teachers say with block scheduling they can delve into their subjects and still have time to review basic skills with students.

"A conversation or discussion doesn't get stopped by the bell," Kimble said. "We are able to cover the spectrum of what students need to know in order for them to pass the high school exit exam."

Block classes also present challenges, teacher say.

On a recent day, Jeff Appell divided his 95-minute freshman math class at Oak Park High into sections: warmup, homework review, math games, lecture, practice. "I have to mix it up," Appell said. "The challenge is to keep their attention. You have to be on your toes more."

Kimble said she often includes skits, debates, mock trials and competitions in her English classes to keep students engaged.

Oak Park students say they enjoy having fewer courses each day, because they have two nights to finish homework for each class. They also say the schedule makes the day less stressful and less confusing. And when they don't understand something, students say, there is time for the teacher to review it step by step.

"Everything is not such a rush," said Ellen Chen, 14. "You're not under as much pressure."

But some students say their classes seem to drag on forever. In one course, said Brandon Koller, 14, the teacher lectures for nearly two hours. "All we do is sit in there and take notes," he said.

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Moore said the longer classes are helping Oak Park students pay attention and stay focused for longer than one hour. "The exit exam is three hours plus, and the kids need to almost be in training for that kind of extended test," he said. "The block schedule will naturally lend itself to that."

Despite the benefits, administrators say block schedules will not help improve student achievement if teachers don't alter their lesson plans. Teachers cannot just spend the extra time in class letting their students do homework, principals said.

John Wilber, principal at Fillmore High School, said he doesn't believe adding extra minutes to classes is the key to raising student achievement or preparing students for the upcoming exam.

"It's what teachers do when they close their doors," he said.

Fillmore's teachers voted against the block schedule several years ago, but some would like to reconsider the topic.

"We're very concerned about preparing our students," Wilber said, "but I'm not sure that's the solution to the exit exam."

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