Three Semesters for Learning

A novel trimester plan in Indiana breaks open new opportunities for a high school of 500 students by MARK F. KEEN

How would you like to be a student entering high school knowing you will be able to meet all of your college-entry requirements, attend school part-time during your last year, take time off to do missionary work in Central America and still graduate with your class?

This and many other options are now possible for high school students in the Westfield-Washington Schools, a rapidly growing school corporation 17 miles north of Indianapolis.

Like many senior highs, Westfield High School was organized into a seven-period day, where most of the 500 students took six classes and a study hall. This pattern afforded them an opportunity to earn a maximum of 56 credits, though most earned 48.

Because many colleges required six credits each of English, math, science and social studies for admission and with foreign language, fine arts and practical arts being required for high school graduation, most college-bound students found little flexibility in their schedules for personal growth and career exploration. Our impetus for investigating different scheduling patterns was to provide more learning opportunities for students.

A Better Alternative
The high school administrators reviewed the research on different schedules, focusing primarily on the two types of block schedules that were coming into vogue--the four-block and the eight-block. Although these two scheduling alternatives appeared to improve upon the seven-period day, they did not seem to offer satisfactory answers to the problems presented by the seven-period day. The block option also would introduce problems of increased staffing levels and extensive staff retraining on how to provide alternate types of instructional delivery in longer class sessions.

Through discussions with faculty and continuing research, the idea of a five-period day in a trimester format evolved. This format would enable students to earn up to 60 or more credits during their high school years. Students would have fewer classes each trimester, but longer class periods. Because of the reduced class load, coupled with a "bonus period," there would be no need for study halls. Thus, over the course of a year, students would earn 15 credits, instead of 12.

But before implementation could occur, we had to sell the idea to the high school staff, the community and the school board. We also had to train the staff to deal with class periods that would be increasing from 50 to 66 minutes with the number of class sessions decreasing from 90 to 60. We presented the plan first to the school trustees and then scheduled community forums. Various groups provided input and the faculty debated the original proposal to reach consensus on a final plan.

After 24 months of work, a revised plan, which was supported by every high school staff member, was approved by the school trustees. Our final plan, which became known as the Westfield 3x5 Plan, differs from anything the literature reveals to be in practice in high schools.

Plenty of Advantages
Besides dividing the traditional school year into three parts, the Westfield 3x5 Plan fundamentally breaks with current thinking of how block schedules are practiced. There are no alternating days and the length of the class period is longer than the traditional period, but not so long as to require massive change in instructional methods. This plan is more than a schoolwide schedule change, however. It paves the way for schools to customize schedules to meet the needs of individual students.

Potential advantages are many:


  • The high school can offer more dual-enrollment courses with nearby universities so students leave high school with multiple college credits under their belts;



  • The schedule coincides with the fall, winter and spring interscholastic sports seasons;



  • Students can take up to three trimesters off for travel, work or illness and still graduate on schedule;



  • Specific subjects, such as calculus, physics and chemistry, can be enhanced by requiring an additional trimester without affecting electives;



  • Students can attend part-time and work part-time and still graduate with their class;



  • Students have the option to graduate early, thus reducing the number of students needing to be scheduled.


    End-of-Day Extra

  • A unique feature of the Westfield 3x5 Plan is the Bonus Period. This 30-minute period occurs every day directly following dismissal at 2:15 p.m. Athletic practices cannot begin until 30 minutes after the conclusion of Bonus Period. On Mondays, this time is used for faculty meetings and staff development and in-service activities. On Tuesday and Thursdays, faculty members are available for students to receive individual instructional help. Wednesdays are for clubs and other activities, such as student council. On Fridays, the time is used for department meetings and interdisciplinary exploration.

    Another feature of the trimester schedule is that it allows for students to take part in off-campus activities because they can earn more than enough credits to graduate. This naturally leads to the development of business and industrial internships, mentorships and apprenticeships. That, in turn, reduces the number of students on campus and reduces the pressure for additional staff.

    At Westfield High, it will take until the third year of implementation (1999-2000) before this benefit is fully realized. Class sizes in the trimester plan can be maintained at previous levels, although elective classes will be larger than under the seven-period day. However, elective class sizes in a traditional schedule are very low, given the fact students do not have much flexibility for those classes in the seven-period day.

    Under the Westfield 3x5 Plan, teachers only have four courses to teach each trimester, but still teach 12 courses over the year. However, they have a third fewer students each trimester, providing closer teacher-student relationships.

    Early Hurdles
    We faced two major concerns before implementing the trimester plan, and one of those almost became a roadblock. First, would we need additional staff? Second, how would two-semester courses be sequenced?

    Hiring additional staff puts a serious strain on a growing school corporation. However, with more partial enrollments, trimesters off and early graduations, staffing levels might remain stable. Early indications are that this will, in fact, be true.

    We are adding one new staff member for every 20 new students. However, in two more years, the projections indicate we will add staff at a ratio of one new staff member for every 30 new students because the full impact of the schedule will be realized. An apprenticeship, internship and mentoring program has been developed that will likely lead to part-time enrollments, which should increase this ratio.

    Sequencing of courses initially proved to be an obstacle to getting the 3x5 Plan adopted. While some community members had initial reservations, faculty members voiced stronger doubts. How would learning be affected if a student took the first half of geometry during the first trimester and then could not take the second half until the third trimester? Would a lot of the instruction have to be repeated? This concern was most prevalent among the math and foreign language teachers, and they were unwilling to proceed without a better understanding in this area.

    Once again, the administrators reviewed current research but found no specific studies dealing with this issue. Through continued dialogue, however, two ideas emerged that satisfied the teachers. First, it was noted that the normal sequence of high school math is algebra I in the freshman year, geometry the sophomore year and algebra II the junior year.

    The discussion raised pertinent questions. If there was a potential problem with regression and recoupment under the trimester plan, why over the years have schools placed an entire instructional year between the two algebra courses? It was further noted that the time teachers might spend reviewing and reinforcing the learning from an earlier trimester before moving on to new concepts would give students a better foundation and allow them to advance more quickly.

    Positive Feelings
    After those concerns were allayed and teachers had received a full year of in-service training on effective teaching strategies, the Westfield 3x5 Plan was implemented in August 1997. Principal Bob Brower realized that simply adding more time would not have a significant impact on learning if the staff did not also alter its teaching.

    Reaction was positive from the start. Joshua Miller, a junior who has experienced the traditional and the 3x5 schedules, says the trimester approach "has helped me with my classes. I get more time in class and more time after school to work on my homework. As a result, my grades are up a lot."

    Teachers, initially concerned about having fewer instructional days, realized they could cover more material and have time for more practice activities in the longer class period. By the end of the trimester, anxiety about covering material had eased. Biology teacher Stacy McGuire, says, "I love teaching on the 3x5 Plan because I believe every student in the building benefits. College-bound students can choose more electives, while other students who may be dissatisfied with school can explore many areas and options."

    Outside Evaluation
    It is easy to believe that anything new is better. Our school district entered into an agreement with Ball State University to conduct a long-term study to determine the effectiveness of the schedule. The university researchers are measuring quantifiable data as well as attitudes of students, staff and community.

    Midway through our second year, the results are encouraging. Tremendous support for the schedule seems to exist among the stakeholders. Student attendance is up. Achievement is up. Many students are taking advantage of the increased flexibility to enroll in more advanced courses. Other students are using the flexibility to explore career options through the apprenticeship, mentoring and internship programs.

    The evaluation by Ball State is also looking at teaching methodologies. The initial feedback is that the increased period length is being used by the faculty to do more "hands-on" or small group activities, rather than simply lecturing longer or giving more time to work on homework. The university will review how the teachers are using the instructional time as a way for the administration to focus on staff development needs.

    These important issues need to be considered, and we will address them as we proceed. But we are confident we have hit upon a schedule that truly benefits students. Brower, who has been the high school principal since 1996, perhaps says it best: "This schedule is truly awesome. It is a schedule for a changing world as we move into the 21st century."

    Mark Keen is superintendent of Westfield-Washington Schools, 322 West Main St., Westfield, Ind. 46074. E-mail: keenm@wws.k12.in.us