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Commentary: Generation Schools and better time use

This commentary was submitted by Jessica Keigan, who has taught English for nine years at Horizon High School and is currently serving with the Denver New Millennium Initiative, a project of the Center for Teaching Quality.

There has been a lot of hullabaloo here lately about time needed to educate students well. Some claim students need more time than the traditional school day has to offer. Others say a four-day week is best.

As a teacher, it seems to me the discussion should shift from the amount of time we spend with kids to making sure that we are being effective with that time.

The bigger question then becomes: How do we ensure that we are creating strong and supportive structures for both teachers and students?

The fact that we are discussing traditional bell schedules and calendars and recognizing the disconnect between the time we spend teaching students and what students leave knowing how to do is the important first step toward finding a better way of doing things.

What is exciting for me are the models that are being created that specifically address use of time in education, looking both at the amount of time teachers and students need to be successful and how to ensure that all time is quality time. These expanded learning opportunities, or ELOs, are creative and innovative reforms that seek to reshape and re-imagine the traditional structures in order to allocate a school’s resources in innovative and functional ways.

Consider this model put forth by Furman Brown and Generation Schools. A high school student is in school for 220 days (as opposed to the traditional 180). During this calendar year, there will be focused time every day for foundational studies (core classes such as literacy and math) followed by afternoon studio courses (electives such as foreign language and art).

Twice a year, the student is released from his daily schedule to take an intensive immersion course for a month to study, say, engineering or advertising with a group of peers and learn from intentionally organized experiences in the community.

How about the teacher schedule? Well, for each of these three sets of learning opportunities (foundational, elective, intensive), there is a different cohort of teachers. Each cohort is allotted two hours every day for collaborative planning, grading, and work time. While students are participating in their intensive course, the other two cohorts of teachers are given time off (instead of the traditional summers-off schedule) or opportunities to dive into an intensive study of their own through professional learning workshops.

With this rotating schedule, students are given the benefit of more time in the school year while teachers are still only contracted for the 180 days that a traditional school system can afford.

More time without putting all of the burden on teachers; immersion studies for high school students who will benefit from authentic, on-the-job training; collaboration time for school staff to continue their own learning and to ensure they are utilizing the best pedagogical practices in the classroom: Sounds pretty good to me.

And this model is coming to Colorado. Next fall, as a part of the revitalization of West High School as proposed by the West Denver Equitable Education Collaborative, a community group working with Denver Public Schools, a subsection of the West High School students will be taught in the Generation Schools model.

By taking both ideas – more time for students and better time for educators – this model provides one concrete way we can have our cake and eat it too. Looking to models such as Generation Schools is an important first step toward solutions that can benefit the system as a whole.

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