STAMFORD — The city’s public school teachers have come out in force against a proposed change in scheduling at Stamford high schools which the district’s administrators say is needed to help address the large number of students currently failing classes.
The Board of Education will be hearing a grievance on Thursday from the local teachers union regarding the district administration’s alleged failure to include teachers in the decision to adopt the new schedule at the district’s three high schools.
CT Examiner spoke with a number of teachers who say that a new schedule will not solve the underlying problems — and may even make things worse.
The grievance comes after two of the district schools — Westhill High School and the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering (known as AITE) — held votes of no confidence in Superintendent Tamu Lucero and Associate Superintendent of Teacher and Learning Amy Beldotti. The vote was supported by 42 of 51 of the tenured faculty members at AITE and 71 of the 101 tenured teachers at Westhill High school, according to reporting by the Stamford Advocate.
The votes were spurred by a proposed change in scheduling that would transition the current high school to what is called a 4×4 hybrid block schedule — a model which schedules students to attend 90-minute sections of the same four classes each day for the fall semester, and then switches to four new classes for the spring.
Under the new schedule, AP classes, college courses and performance arts classes would all be full-year, albeit in a 90-minute format.
In Board of Education meetings in January and February, Beldotti described the change as a way to give students more opportunities to pursue internships, work and to take college courses outside of school.
Beldotti also said the new schedule would minimize transition times between classes, and give students who are failing, the opportunity to retake the course before the end of the year.
“Right now we have hundreds of students who are not on track to graduate,” said Beldotti.
According to district data, about half of the students at each of the city’s three public high schools are failing at least one course. At AITE, one in five freshmen are not on track to move on to 10th grade, while at Westhill and Stamford that number is one in three.
Lucero told board members the 4×4 schedule would allow students to form closer relationships with their teachers.
“We are in a place right now where we want each student to have a trusted adult,” Lucero explained in a recent board meeting.
But teachers who spoke with CT Examiner said the decision to shift to the new schedule was made without meaningful consultation with the faculty in the high schools.
According to Kate Tobin, a union representative for the Stamford Education Association at Westhill High School and an English teacher, the decision-making process violated Board of Education policy by failing to include teachers.
In January, Beldotti told board members that the district had been trying to devise a new schedule for the last six years. She said that the administration had made the decision to move to the 4×4 schedule after feeling like there was little chance that teachers and administration would be able to come to an agreement.
“All of that years and years of input and listening with — quite honestly — very little light at the end of the tunnel in terms of all agreeing on anything, really led administration to decide, we needed to rip off the proverbial band-aid, make a decision, and then … come together with our teacher leaders, our department heads, teachers of every course to figure out the details and the logistics,” explained Beldotti.
On March 24, the board debated a resolution to recommend an A/B schedule next fall at the high schools rather than the administration’s recommended 4×4 plan. A/B block scheduling is currently used at AITE.
Like the 4×4, the A/B block schedule uses four 90-minute class periods each day, but the classes rotate through so that students are attending different classes on A and B days.
The motion failed by a vote of 5-4.
Those in opposition to the 4×4 model said they did not believe the new schedule would get to the root of the student achievement problems, while those in favor said they felt the change was worth trying and cited support from building administrators.
In January, Matthew Forker, principal of Stamford High School, told board members the new schedule would provide more opportunities for creativity and flexibility than the current 7-period schedule.
Both Forker and Principal Michael Rinaldi of Westhill High School also explained that new state requirements increasing the number of high school credits required to graduate from 20 to 25 credits was an impetus for the shift.
“We knew that the 25 credits were coming and so we understood that we needed change,” said Rinaldi.
High school teachers who spoke to CT Examiner said that it was already possible to meet those requirements with their current schedules. AITE, for example, already requires 25 credits to graduate, and students can earn as many as 32 credits in four years.
Students at the other two Stamford high schools can earn 28 credits.
In February, students at AITE created a webinar supporting the existing schedule, touting its positive effects both on academic results and for student mental health.
Teachers at AITE told CT Examiner that the district was doing well with their current A/B block schedule, and that they did not see the need to make a change.
“We’ve had this great schedule for 20 years and we didn’t want to change to this other schedule. And the more we looked at it, the more we realized that it was a terrible schedule, that would really be devastating to our students,” said Claude Morest, a history teacher at AITE.
Morest said his biggest concern with the schedule was that it would lead to learning losses. He said that if a student, for example, took a math class during the fall semester and then didn’t have another math class until the following fall, the student would forget what was learned in their previous class.
Michelle Pusser, who teaches AP Government and Politics at AITE, said that holding classes every other day rather than every day gives students “breathing room” to digest the material and do their homework. She also said she felt that having the AP and UConn classes on the old A/B schedule, but other classes on the 4×4 schedule, created a situation that was not equitable.
“No one is denying that there’s a certain group of students, a certain population of students who really need some help. So that’s our job as educators, and we want to help, but this four by four block schedule in our opinion is just not the way to do it,” she said.
Stamford High and Westhill High, in contrast, currently schedule seven class periods each day lasting about 50 minutes each.
Drew Denbaum, who teaches English at Westhill High School, said that prior to the pandemic the teachers had worked with Beldotti to create a schedule called WIN & Go, offering 4 rotating 65-minute periods each day, with flexible periods at the start and end of the day for students. The introduction of a 4×4 schedule, he said, came as a complete surprise.
Denbaum said his biggest concern was that trying to cram year-long courses into a semester would not allow students enough of an opportunity to grow.
“I know that particularly for my struggling students, they are just beginning to improve by the end of the first semester,” said Denbaum.
He also said that having semester-long classes rather than year-long classes makes it more difficult for teachers and students to get to know one another.
Ann Herz, head of the world languages department at Westhill, said that she was worried that students will find it difficult to concentrate for 90-minute classes. Hertz said that the current schedule with frequent shorter classes, in her opinion, was ideal for teaching languages.
“It is ill-advised to try to teach a second language in a condensed amount of time, like a whole year’s course in one semester,” she said. “Kids need the opportunity to process the information and internalize it and work with it.”
Every teacher agreed that student achievement was a significant concern, but that in their opinion, 4×4 blocks were not the best way to address the issue.
Pusser said that AITE had discussed implementing “flex time” — a period of 30 or 40 minutes during the day when students could come to teachers for extra help. She said this would also help build relationships between teachers and students, one of the administration’s goals with the 4×4 schedule.
“We’re trying to help prevent the student from failing the first time,” said Pusser.
Herz said she felt the main problem was that students were not attending classes, which she didn’t believe would be changed through a new schedule.
“Kids need to go to class. Students need to attend. It’s not going to make any difference what schedule we have if there is no impetus for kids to go to class,” said Herz.
Denbaum said that he felt there needed to be a plan for intervention when students are struggling.
“The schedule has very little to do with these basic problems. The most important thing to do for these students is to have a rigorous intervention plan, so that as soon as a student starts failing, you’ve got all these supports that they can take advantage of,” he said.
Denbaum did say that he felt Lucero was making an effort to communicate with the staff about the scheduling change.
“She’s visited my classroom a number of times. I know she’s been to the school more often in this past month, in the past couple of weeks, than she had been previously. And she’s engaging us in one-on-one conversations about this, and I’ve been very appreciative of that,” he said.
The grievance hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Thursday and can be viewed via Zoom.
This story has been updated and corrected to reflect that the Win & Go proposal would schedule 4 periods each day.