Clarification, 5:22 p.m.: Students with interventions can’t take electives.
NORWALK, Conn. — It’s time to move out of middle school “redesign” and into “design,” Norwalk Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers said last week.
The controversial middle school redesign, begun in 2016, is being relooked at, with the possibility of changing the 80-minute blocks to 60-minute blocks and perhaps dropping the “house” system installed upon school populations as part of the redesign.
“One of the things I found this year is we keep going back to, in our middle school planning, what really was the purpose? Why are we doing this? Why did we pick these strategies and the interventions that we did?” Myers said Tuesday to the Board of Education Curriculum Committee.
Her ideas found enthusiastic support.
“I will volunteer for 60-minute blocks in a heartbeat,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) First Vice President Joe Giandurco, a Ponus Middle School teacher, said.
Myers came into Norwalk Public Schools in July, replacing former interim Chief Academic Officer Craig Creller, who took over when Michael Conner left the CAO position to become a superintendent elsewhere.
A Committee, with the help of a consulting group, in 2016 studied national reports on best middle school practices and visited middle schools in other communities, to develop the redesign.
“This is what happens when you evolve,” Myers said Tuesday. “You have an idea, ‘the block is really important to our instructional paradigm,’ but now we have to say what about these other things that really create tension. We are working on that model.”
The National Education Association explains, “In contrast with the traditional daily six-, seven-, or eight-period schedule, a block schedule consists of three or four longer periods of daily instruction.”
NPS will pilot a program at one middle school, using 60-minute blocks instead of 80-minute blocks, Myers said.
“I would almost go the opposite way, go all four middle schools,” Giandurco replied. “…You will really get the data to see if it does work.”
Board member Julie Corbett asked if instead of a year-long pilot program, if the other three middle schools could adopt the changes halfway through the school year.
Myers worked to discourage the enthusiasm for fast change.
“One of the things I worry about, things are not perfect when you roll them out. They take a lot of massaging and a lot of attention. We have had some very complex change on our middle schools,” she said.
Plus, the Teach to One math program at Nathan Hale Middle School wouldn’t do well with 60-minute blocks, she said.
Shorter blocks would hopefully allow the students to take electives – something the kids who have interventions can’t do now, Myers said.
NPS “went with basically an 80-minute block schedule which limits the number of blocks that you can have,” she explained, calling that an impediment to choice.
“The teachers’ feedback was the kids don’t utilize the longer block in the same way,” Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said.
“Most of (the children with interventions) don’t have any electives, which makes school about as boring as it can be,” Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel observed.
Electives are important as the kids need to experiment, because, “There is never a time in the life of a student that is more critical than middle years… they are trying everything on,” Myers said. “So we want to build schools that are welcoming to that. also help to facilitate that growth…. We want to make sure that they, especially in that adolescent brain development, have a lot of opportunities for music, and the arts in their elective choices.”
Read 180, an intervention system, was a topic of discussion.
“We are finding we are losing the attention of middle school students in an everyday tech-based Read 180 model and we think if we don’t get them into some sort of an elective structure with something they are interested in next to it, it pulls you into the hard work sometimes, so we are also dealing with the affect of our children, as well,” Myers said.
There was also much commentary on the house system, which organizes students into subset student bodies, across grade levels, in a manner known to many from the Harry Potter movies.
“I have worked with house structured middle schools… House structures are the idea that when you enter that middle school you become part of a family that is six-seven-eight, who knows you and loves you for the three years, and owns you,” Myers said. “We literally run three houses in one physical structure. Some of our schools are a little small for that. It’s a little hard to build the house.”
There are house meetings, grade-level meetings and department meetings, and that’s not how it’s supposed to work, she said.
“House is supposed to be the archetypical structure of your day, your life, in that building and I am not sure even as we work without students… we have been clear about how a sixth grader enters a family of sixth, seventh and eighth, because parents have shared with me how concerned they are that sixth grade is not together, that it’s a six-seven-eight house. This house structure has really been causing us hiccups,” Myers said.
Giandurco, two years ago, issued words of caution on the developing redesign.
“Let us redesign middle school once, correctly, rather than through a series of edicts and revisions. The idea of smaller communities does not always work,” he said.
On Tuesday, he said that when the middle schools were organized as teams, teachers worked together.
“The house structure, there’s some wonderful things, there’s some negative things to it,” Giandurco said. “Ideally, I like teams better because you met with the same four or five teachers and it was there, and it was all the stuff we had to do…. it lended itself to that sense of community that we are talking about a house should create but it was inherent.”