Sunday, September 21, 2008

Best Practice and School Schedules

What is the best system of scheduling for college prep high schools? It seems the popularity of the block, carnegie, or trimester are often found in clusters of use throughout the country. In my own personal experience I have only taught at or been enrolled in a high school setting utilizing the carnegie unit or eight fifty minute classes per day. My current employer utilizes the carnegie unit and in general the faculty support this scheduling system.

The pros and cons of each system are interesting to consider. A few google searches on the topic turn up some interesting finds. One of interest was a parent lead coalition and website dedicated to reversing the implementation of block scheduling (link here). Their arguments against the 4 X 4 block focused on the lack of continuity in the languages, lower scores on AP testing (certain classes available only in the fall while testing is in the spring), lack of instructional minutes with the block, and teachers continuing to use lecturing as their primary pedagogical tool. Those advocating for block scheduling stress its ability to force differentiated instruction, reduce disciplinary issues, increase lab and hands on learning, while also increasing teacher planning time. Certain types of block schedules utilize alternating A/B days to stretch classes over the entire academic year limiting the risk of spacing and AP examinations.

The typical carnegie unit structure features seven to eight individual units of equal length throughout the day. Some courses are two semesters in length while others are only one semester in duration. The advocates of this structure push time on task and its correlation to learning as well as its ability to better sequence foreign language courses. Critics argue the system reinforces lecture based instruction and forces students to often take seven non related courses at once. Other criticisms point out the amount of time spent in management as a higher percentage of classroom minutes. Taking role and opening closing duties in seven classes is more percentage time than a schedule of four classes.

A growing number of schools are implementing a trimester schedule which in general features a course length of sixty to seventy minutes with five classes in a given day. A traditional two semester class is covered by utilizing two of the three trimesters. Proponents argue the schedule allows a traditional core curriculum to be covered by freeing up time for an array of electives (link here). Problems still arise in this model with the sequencing of foreign languages and scheduling core courses in available slots can be tricky. (What system of scheduling isn't tricky?)

What in general are the common practices among Catholic college prep high schools? Below is a link to a survey about common practices regarding student schedules.

Link to survey here: Link

What are your general thoughts and experiences with these various schedules?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Debate on Drug Testing

Most private high schools do not face the same level of severity of the problems that often plague our public counterparts. Unfortunately we often do face the problems of student drug use and what to do about it. How do we balance the public good versus the private good of offering the student a chance to make amends while helping to alter behavior, that if unchecked, can lead to the ruin of addiction and despair? There are no easy answers but their are a number of schools taking steps to address the problem of drug use. These steps range from frequent presentation on the dangers of drug use to mandatory drug testing programs for all students.

The Diocese of Peoria, effective nine years ago began a mandatory drug testing program for all students in the Diocese's six high schools. The tests are done at random or on suspicion and involve a hair test giving a 90 day history for a panel of five drugs. Students who test positive above the cut off thresholds face the consequences determined locally by each of the six high schools. Consequence at the six schools range from moderate for first time offenses to expected expulsion for repeated offenses. The possession of drugs on school grounds or the dealing of drugs often faces more immediate and severe consequences.

In my three year experience as an administrator in one of these schools the pros and cons of this program are often debated by students, parents, and staff alike. While students cringe at their inevitable invasion of their so-called privacy most indicate on surveys that the policy at least provides them with an easy out when offered illegal substances. The, "I can't... I attend such and such and we are tested..." has provided many a students with an easy out. The first year's implementation had a negative consequence of a marked number of students transferring out protesting their violation of privacy. Of course one could logically conclude there were other motives for their departure.

In general when a student tests positive the first time they are required to meet with the school administration and their parents and agree to a contract including a mandatory drug assessment, ten hours of additional service hours, and a 28 day social and athletic probation. Depending on the assessment and the level of use a family must agree to a medically recommended treatment plan. A second violation warrants another assessment and treatment plan followed with a 40 day social probation and 365 day athletic probation. A third offense barring some major exceptions brings automatic expulsion.

Faculty debate the consequences for their punitive rather than rehabilitative means. The question of what role athletics provide in encouraging a reform to positive behavior while honoring commitments to peers is often questioned? Is it wise to cut students off from such positive spheres of influence? Is the date consequence irrelevant. Many local schools have students who test positive for drugs sit a percentage of their season rather than a number of days. Each has its pros and cons.

One local principal comments that the drawback of a set day penalty is that it may or may not have any real impact on a student. A baseball player who tests positive for marijuana on the first of October essentially faces no athletic consequence whereas if the consequence was a percentage of the season the punishment would pack more punch?

Perhaps though this debate points towards the larger question of drug use? Should we impose consequences of a criminal nature or should we view drug use as a symptom of a larger moral or psychological problem. We can all argue that normal functioning adults do not need or use illegal drugs. They are often an escape or coping mechanism for a larger emotional problem that is going unaddressed. This approach may seem soft to some but is it more effective at addressing the real issues? The Church is clear on the moral issues involving drug use and the intrinsic moral evil surrounding their illegal distribution.

Our school enrolls roughly 850 students and the positive number of tests each year are often under a dozen. This means that the policy effects less than 1.5% of the population. But even with the small number there are always surprises. I've had students in my office claim the reason they do a certain drug is they knew the school would find out and their parents would finally have to notice them. Hard to believe but true. On the other end I've had parents call and ask if it would be okay for their son to experiment with drugs while in Europe over the summer. Unbelievable I know, but at least they asked.

We've all seen students fall into the trap of drug addiction. We've seen the drug habits of some parents spill upon their children. I find drug testing to be one tool in the battle but struggle with how to match the right consequences to the action. Any thoughts? And please click the survey link below to share your own school's stance on the issue.

Link to survey here: Drug Testing Link