The Personalization of Creative High School Scheduling

by RONALD L. FRIEDMAN

Lucas arrived faithfully on the high school bus at 8 a.m., only to become a lost 9th grader daily among his high school peers. Lacking the requisite entry-level high school social skills, Lucas never connected with his classmates. A physical blemish didn’t help. His high IQ and other top standardized-exam indicators he’d earned didn’t mitigate his inability to navigate the typical high school world of blocks of scheduled time.

Lucas just could not regularly get from point X to point Y when the predictable bell rang, and when he did go to class, he couldn’t deal with producing output on demand or within a defined time.

In a typical, well-intentioned high school, safety nets would kick in. Personalized failure warning notices would spew forth by the computerized systems of which we’re all now so proud. “Lucas must get to class on time,” “Lucas isn’t working up to potential,” ad nauseaum. Parent involvement, counseling, perhaps a special education referral. Predictable interventions all too often lead to predictable non-results.

Dare to Differ
At the William A. Shine-Great Neck South High School in Great Neck, N.Y., our high school guidance department, faculty and administration quickly went to work in response, but in a novel way. The counselor and teachers created an environment Lucas needed, rather than trying to “fix Lucas” by fitting him into various well-intentioned and valuable but off-target (for Lucas) programs and structures.

The principal approved and facilitated some complexities — a partnership with a local university with weekly classes; a professor who was willing to work with Lucas at Lucas’s home. Lucas’s great art talent was leveraged and credited, thanks to our culture and another teacher who worked with him at home. Staff evolved a detailed art education plan that worked for Lucas and far exceeded state and local standards.

Lucas came back to school daily, thriving after school immersed in the yearbook and the school’s literary magazine. He spent part of his senior year at another top-ranked university, in non-matriculated courses both the school district and the university could credit. Lucas graduated and continued his studies successfully at this top university.

Ellen, a tennis player, needed to spend six weeks in Central and South America, going for a prestigious international ranking. She received assignments and did her work via e-mail. Another tennis player, Ed, needed even more time away. We worked out courses for him through a national home schooling association and a university offering online courses, all under staff auspices and evaluation. The Hughes sisters, Sarah and Emily, both Olympic figure skaters and products of Great Neck North High School, similarly needed and received creative accommodations to allow for the rigors of their professional schedules while maintaining a real involvement in their home school.

Support From Atop
In the Great Neck Public Schools, our two high schools number about 800 and 1,300 students. Many of our high school students are similar to Lucas, Ellen, Ed, Sarah and Emily. We live the admittedly over-used aphorism “every kid is special” by developing an individualized education plan for virtually every child.

People ask me, “Do we have tracking?” to which I answer, “Yes, and we have 2,100 tracks!” But top-level support, encouragement and nurturing are necessary if the flexibility and creativity needed at the school building level is to take hold and become the norm.

In 2005, our board of education recognized the unique ways in which we already were pushing the personalization envelope by adopting a board policy titled “Special Instructional Arrangements.” Policy 4329 codified the creativity we were proud of and structured it with educational, legal and financial safeguards. We had no template when we created the policy; we worked with staff and our attorney to figure it out.

The policy is available on our website (www.greatneck.k12.ny.us). Work with your board to develop a similar policy to both guide and protect.

As superintendent, I must take the lead, working with the school board to embrace individualization in more creative ways, and to scrutinize the budget to provide staff development funds. I need to ensure the building staff — counselors, administrators, department heads and teachers — inform decision making every step of the way.

I have to take the lead in creating the supportive environment and finding the resources, but school staff must embrace the concept and develop the options and details.

Caveats, Cautions
Surmounting the safety of traditional rigidity and carefully honed walls that are dear to American high schools carries an element of risk and concomitant responsibility. Several stakeholders are affected.

The principal and faculty: Principals generally have a great deal of latitude in approving special arrangements and granting credits. But if they do so unilaterally, especially in a school with an astute and extraordinary faculty, morale among the faculty will be jeopardized and their support for the principal won’t materialize. Having faculty on board is a must.

The critical need is this — a culture wherein the entire staff looks creatively at unusual, individualized variations of scheduling and then celebrates its successes. Run each plan through academic departments to ensure adequate checks and balances on what guidance counselors, the principal and others construct. The academic quality and reputation of our high schools is sacrosanct so the “creativity” must be good.

The union: The school community must be a caring and supportive place or staff won’t take the risks involved in using broadly diverse resources to meet students’ needs. But if staff and the union perceive that teachers are treated in the same manner and with the same care and concern as we are expressing with regard to students, the union will likely be on board. Be as flexible and creative with faculty as you are with your students. See through walls. As long as an idea makes educational and emotional sense and is legal, find a way to do it.

Parents: Parents talk to each other! First impressions are important. Stress “can do” rather than restrictive rules at the outset, with the first parent letters and other documents provided to incoming 9th-graders’ parents. Tone is important; openness and willingness start from the words, smiles and body language of key staff early on. If you’re not open, parents won’t ask for help and won’t visualize options.

Ronald Friedman is superintendent of the Great Neck Public Schools, 345 Lakeville Road, Great Neck, NY 11020. E-mail: rfriedman@greatneck.k12.ny.us