At Omaha North High, Principal Gene Haynes backs his school's block schedule.
Students follow what's called an A/B block, alternating schedules every other day. One day they take four 90-minute classes, the next day they take four different ones.
Traditional classes of about 45 minutes in length are “not fair to them,” he said. “It's not enough time to get all their work done.”
Across the Omaha school district at South High, Guidance Director Mary-Beth Muskin goes to bat for her school's traditional scheduling — nine 42-minute periods.
“That nine-period schedule seems to work very well for our students in terms of attention spans, variety of courses, the flow of the day,” she said.
So which way works best?
That's what the new Omaha Public Schools scheduling committee is trying to find out.
Over the next several months, a committee of teachers and administrators will study the district's patchwork approach to scheduling at the middle and high school levels. It aims to research different schedule models, gather feedback from students and staff and potentially recommend one standardized schedule for OPS schools. Any changes would come in the 2015-16 school year.
In the past, OPS has allowed home rule to reign when it came to scheduling. Fifteen middle and high schools use some form of a modified block schedule, but four — Central, South and Northwest High Schools and Beveridge Middle School — follow a traditional schedule of shorter periods.
After a similar committee met in 2011, district administrators decided against enforcing a one-size-fits-all model.
“Some schools like the modified block day because it gives teachers time to do more hands-on instruction and less lecturing,” said ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction and assessment.
“Other nine-period advocates like the shorter time. Some schools feel they have a unique identity defined by their schedule,” she said.
The new OPS school board asked the committee to revisit the issue as the district compiles its first strategic plan in years. One aligned schedule could make it easier for students to transfer schools, but Kehrberg described the purpose of the committee as being more of a fact-finding expedition by a new board collecting data on district operations.
During a presentation Monday, school board members Lou Ann Goding and Marian Fey asked the scheduling committee to look beyond the traditional-versus-block options. The district has an opportunity to get creative with scheduling, including expanding zero-hour options, which allow kids to take an early class, or varying start times.
“With our diverse student population, I think a one-size-fits-all wouldn't be an appropriate approach,” Goding said. “I think even inside each building, there could be different schedules based on student needs.”
Kehrberg said research shows that scheduling has only a small impact on student performance. Creative teachers with engaging lessons are the key to academic success, no matter how a day is structured, she said.
But scheduling is still perceived as an important building block for schools, dictating classroom management, what courses students choose and how teachers plan lessons.
When block and traditional schedules go head-to-head, the research is decidedly mixed.
Rearranging schedules isn't necessarily a quick fix for boosting achievement, University of Nebraska-Lincoln education professor Ted Hamann said.
“Some kids do better with block, some do better with traditional,” he said. “If a district thinks a mandate handed down from high is going to reconcile anything, they're probably going to find themselves out of balance.”
Proponents of block scheduling argue that the longer class times allow for more in-depth learning — more time for group work and lab setups, less time devoted to things such as attendance taking. At many schools, students can still choose shorter classes to work into their schedule.
North seniors Lasha Goodwin and Jewel Rodgers have been following a block schedule since middle school. They like digging into labs for longer periods and having an extra day to complete assignments, though Rodgers admits that 90-minute periods can drag sometimes.
“You can get a lot done in 90 minutes,” Goodwin said. “In statistics, we can have a half-hour review of homework, take a quiz, learn the new stuff and have 20 minutes at the end to work on homework. You can be very productive.”
At a school like South, the traditional schedule allows students to take more electives, such as the drama and music classes that feed into the school's magnet program, Muskin said.
Steven Steinbruck, a math teacher at North, acknowledges that block scheduling has its drawbacks. He sees his students every other day, a schedule that can make retention difficult for subjects that require daily practice, such as math or foreign languages.
“With some students, it's basically like starting over every day,” he said. “It's more difficult to build on concepts.”