One School’s First Step: Changing the Schedule to Get the Numbers Down

In a bold step designed to dramatically reduce the number of students teachers see in a semester, Iroquois High School will launch a “Macro-class Optional Program” in the coming school year. The program redesigns the school’s schedule into three 100-minute blocks, punctuated at midday by a 70-minute lunch and activity period. During its first year, it will coexist alongside the traditional six-period Iroquois schedule, with teachers moving freely from one to the other; but after three years Principal Stuart Watts expects all Iroquois students to be in macro-classes. “The longer blocks provide a format in which our commitment to Essential School principles can grow and thrive,” he says.

“This gets teachers down to being responsible for 75 kids over the course of a semester,” says Watts. Though it also means 25 minutes more teaching time, 96 percent of Iroquois faculty voted for the new system, in which they teach a maximum of three classes per day. Teachers may also teach two classes and sponsor activities, or team with other teachers in interdisciplinary classes. About 20 percent more classes can be offered under the new procedure, which decreases the number of students in each class. The length of the school day and the calendar year will not change.

Modeled after educator Joseph M. Carroll’s “Copernican Plan,” the new system works by separating subjects into intensive one-semester units, rather than spreading them out over the school year. In the first half of the year, a student might take only English, math, and a foreign language; in the second half she could switch to social studies, science, health, and music. At the end of the year, she will have accumulated six course credits, and Carnegie unit requirements will have been met. Still, Theodore Sizer cautions, nothing about the Copernican schedule guarantees depth in the curriculum, which he believes cannot come with focusing only on coverage.

Watts hopes that the longer blocks will foster more opportunities to integrate community resources and job partnerships, and more attention to measuring student progress on an individual level. “We have a lot of challenges in this school,” he says, “including attendance rates, dropouts, and a very high percentage of at-risk and ESL kids.” An emphasis on demonstrated mastery–rather than a checklist approach to minimum competency–will characterize Iroquois macro-classrooms.