Better Flexibility, Tighter Curriculum Available in Trimester Plan

School Schedules by BOB MILLER

Trimester schedules can bring many options to a high school. At 480-student Forest City High School in Forest City, Iowa, where we have used a trimester schedule since 1991, we have found the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

We looked at various schedules to determine which would work best for our situation. We sent staff on site visits, conducted in-service training and surveyed other schools by phone to find out how and if a trimester schedule would work.

Once we committed to move from two semesters to three trimesters, our 42-member staff had many decisions to make. As the top administrator, I was willing to let staff members as a group make most of them. Obviously, the biggest decision dealt with one-semester courses: Should they be lengthened to two trimesters or shortened to one trimester?

Most faculty members decided that they had so much content they would need two trimesters to cover everything. After the administration questioned if everyone could teach 14 courses during the winter trimester, we began the process of "selected abandonment"--the discarding of outdated materials from many courses. The gutting of our curriculum had a cleansing effect on the whole staff.

Many expressed the feeling we were starting something new and exciting. At the same time, we asked staff to consider other alternative types of scheduling. This led to double blocking of some courses: chemistry, physics, general biology, principles of technology and advanced composition.

Our job as school administrators was to remove any barriers that could inhibit learning.

Multiple Advantages
The trimester system offered distinct advantages relating to increased flexibility, a tighter curriculum and better interpersonal relationships.
  • Flexibility. Trimesters have opened the door for many students to enroll in classes they would normally not be able to fit into their schedules.

    This flexibility must be built into the schedule in the beginning. For example, band and vocal music meet every day for the trimester but the students do not have to take a full year. They may take three trimesters if they wish but it is not required. By only taking two trimesters of music, students are free to take another class.

    The same holds true for physical education. Students must take at least two trimesters of phys-ed, but they can use the third session to take another class.

    Such flexibility has contributed to large increases in the number of students enrolling in elective courses. Enrollment in family and consumer science has grown from a low of 76 during the last two-semester year to 433 on a trimester schedule. We have seen similar increases in art and industrial technology.

  • Curriculum. Moving into trimesters forced our staff to re-evaluate the curriculum. Most courses have since evolved into one-trimester classes, which has resulted in the creation of many new courses. In English, the American literature teacher has developed three separate curriculums so that the students could take up to three distinct courses in the field.

    To fit a 12-week schedule, teachers also had to eliminate some "fluff" from their courses.

  • Relationships. Though we have no direct evidence to support this, I believe the change in student scheduling has improved relationships between students and teachers. It is much easier to convince a student to persist in a course they find challenging through the end of a trimester than it would be if the course continued for 18 weeks.

    I believe the entire high school environment seems less stressful. Meanwhile, the number of students cutting classes has dropped sharply.

Two Disadvantages
However, moving the school year into trimesters is not without its problems. These primarily relate to the administrative challenge of generating student schedules a third time in a year and the sharp increase in course preparations.
  • Scheduling. A major concern of administrators when considering trimesters is the fact they must build three schedules, not two. We have been questioned by other school administrators about the complexity of the schedule we have built. However, our management software will create any schedule we wish, given the proper parameters.

    We build the schedule for the year and hope we will not have to move any courses around once set. We usually end up adjusting one or two courses to relieve conflicts, but that fits into our philosophy of doing what’s best for the students.

  • Preparation Time. Having 21 class periods throughout the year, as opposed to 14, meant that our teachers had to develop some new courses while revamping others to fit a shorter time frame. We attempted to limit the number of preparations per teacher to four or less. Unfortunately, that is hard to do, especially with single-section courses. Our staff has been understanding of this problem.

We think we have been successful with trimesters but realize that our model may not be appropriate for every high school. Many factors must be taken into account before changing the structure of the school so dramatically. And even though you may reform the structure, a successful school transformation must change the day-to-day interactions between the teachers and students for learning at the highest levels.

Bob Miller is principal of Forest City High School, 206 W. School St., Forest City, Iowa 50436. E-mail: