LETTER: Parent has concerns about Highline Public Schools schedule changes

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, written by a Reader. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The B-Town Blog nor its staff:]

Parents, grandparents and community members who want children to have positive educational experiences, please read post this carefully.

The Highline School District is having information meetings in the next few weeks about high school schedule changes, where all schools would move to a trimester system in fall of 2020. There are five periods a day, compared to six in a semester system (or 7 in some school districts).

This is a HUGE change, with MAJOR implications for a student’s opportunities in high school and for their preparation for college. Having year-long classes with the same teacher and the same classmates is very hard in a trimester system.

I’ve been looking at the issue of high school credits and graduation requirements for several years. I am still learning. This is a complex topic, and there are lots of concepts that all blur together. But here’s an overview, and some suggested questions for the meetings.

Over a decade ago, the Highline School District converted to small high schools. To be polite, the “benefits” never really materialized. The costs turned out to be much higher than we could afford. And many teachers and parents who’d raised concerns early turned out to be right. Enrollment dropped significantly in the impacted schools.

Here we go again? But this time we don’t even have outside funders promising to cover some of the costs. There are no professors from education schools saying this will work or is a good idea. There are zero schools anyone points to and says with a straight face “this is a model for us, and here are the outcomes.”

In a trimester system, there are three terms per year, with five classes per 12 week term, with students earning 7.5 credits per year. Semesters have two terms per year, with six classes per 18 week term, so students can earn 6 credits per year.

The current online Thought Exchange about trimesters and the feedback sessions linked to above both reference “more space” and ask what classes should be offered. But keep in mind the phrase, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”.

Everyone should be asking what the real cost is, both to implement and from reduced enrollment as students exit to Running Start or charters, private schools, move or other alternatives. Everyone should be asking why there are no role model schools.

And parents and students should strongly question the tradeoffs in a trimester system. These downsides are some of the topics I’ve been trying to make sense of for the past three years:

  1. What would a full four years of this schedule look like for students?
  2. What subjects get more time, and what subjects get less time?
  3. Will a “year”, defined as two terms of 12 weeks each in a trimester system (compared to two terms of 18 weeks in a semester system), provide sufficient preparation for college or career?

The state of Washington has changed graduation requirements for high school. The full details are on the Core 24 section of the State Board of Education. At a surface level, the 24 credit requirement seems straightforward. But when you read the fine print, they turn out to be very complicated. They attempt to have flexibility, but this creates complexity that is very hard and costly to actually implement.

For example, there’s a waiver that is possible to remove two of the 24 credits for “unusual” circumstances. See item 16 and following in this FAQ about Core 24. Also, there’s a Personal Pathway Requirement (PPR) exemption for the one of the years of art and two of world language. This sounds good, but is also hard to implement.

At first glance, a trimester system looks like a better way to meet Core 24 mandates for numbers of credits earned. There are 30 credit opportunities, (1.5 more per year for each of the four years). And the problem with 24 credits implemented in a semester system is there’s no space during the school day for kids to fail a class and still graduate. For a variety of reasons, Highline has a lot of failing kids. The data that is publicly available on the new state report card is very sobering. Per the report card, 59% of last year’s Highline 9th grade students were not on track to graduate, as they had not earned 6 credits by the end of 9th grade.

But will a trimester structure actually result in more failure than our already high rates? What other metrics do we care about? Root problems, like poor attendance, don’t go away in a trimester system. If anything, missing one week has a much bigger impact in 12 weeks than in an 18 week term.

Will a trimester system help kids be prepared for college or other post high school plans? There is zero evidence that answers yes.

In Core 24, students need four years of English. They need three years of Math, Social Studies, and Science. World Language and Arts are two years (unless one uses the previously mentioned PPR, again this is complicated). There’s also Career and Technical Education, PE and Health. Core 24 allows for four electives.

This is why looking at sample four year plans is critical.

The Highline School Board had a work study session on Feb 23. See pages 16 and 17 of the handouts for some examples of schedules for two students. At first glance, these look plausible. But then, start thinking about what’s not included. No band or music. One student meets world language through a proficiency test, which greatly simplifies scheduling. The first of the students only actually completes one year of science, not the three years needed for graduation.

Another example was prepared at least a year ago on the district pages about schedule changes. Again, at first glance, it looks plausible. But not all requirements are actually completed, and also note the gaps of 3 months or more in many subjects.

The following table shows a typical four year match of grad requirement to years for high school students in a semester system. A few of these subjects, like Art, PE, Health, and CTE, could be different for one semester compared to another. But the rest are all continuous for a full year.

MathYesYesYesRecommended for four year colleges
ScienceYesYesYesRecommended for health careers / STEM majors
Social StudiesYesYesOne of two yearsOne of two yearsNeed one more year in 11 or 12
World LanguageYesYesoptionaloptionalOne more year is a helpful for college admissions
Arts/ MusicMusic performanceMusic performanceoptionaloptionalMusic performance ideally would start in 9th grade and be for all four years
CTETbdTbdTbdTbdNeed to fit one one year
PE/HealthTbdTbdTbdTbdNeed to fit in two years. Some students do online Health and PE through sports
Total subjects per year5 + music, CTE or PE/ Health5 + music, CTE or PE/ Health3 + (year of social studies, CTE, PE/Health)1 + (Math, Science, year of social studies, CTE, PE/Health)

So what does a trimester system look like?

This is impossible to say. We can come up with scenarios that fill boxes, as shown on examples linked-to above, but these may not be feasible to implement because teachers and classrooms have to be matched to the students. There’s no guarantee they are actually available! What does the history teacher do in the winter or Spanish teacher do in the spring when the students have a break from their subject?

Parents, this is where the trimester system looks like a shell game of earning “credits”, not mastering the skills needed for college and for life.

In a trimester system, something has to give. There are only five slots per day! A “credit” in a trimester system is not 36 weeks (two semesters), it is 24 weeks (two trimesters). So, what gets shortened to less than a full year?

It is premature to talk about “more” space until we know what’s shortened. Here are two scheduling options to reduce six slots in the semester system to five slots in the trimester system.

  1. Reduce a year-long class to two trimesters. This a “deflation” approach.
    • So, cover 36 weeks of content in 24 weeks.
    • Or don’t even try to cover all of 36 weeks’ content. Instead, cut the topics and only have 2/3 of the topics of a year-long class (but yes, this 2/3 does count as a full year of credits).
  1. Skip a subject entirely. This is the “elimination” approach.
    • Four subjects stay at 36 weeks. They are English, Math, Social Studies, and Science. These are the subjects that require three or four years in order to graduate.
    • For the 5th and final slot, a student could have a year of one and only one of these choices: Music/Art, World Language, PE/Health or CTE.

The whole premise of trimesters is “it gives failing kids a slot so they can take a class during the school day they have previously failed.” But what if we have this backwards: what if “creating the slot to retake a failed class is actually going to result in more failure?” I think this is what’s going to happen.

Take a close look at the sample schedules, especially the more recent one presented to the school board. Do you think your child could handle these constant switches of teachers every 12 weeks? Or the dynamics of having a different group of students every 12 weeks? Or a schedule that has no space for one class per day they actually want to be in, like band or something hands-on?

There’s a lot of academic research about the “summer slide”, where students have a three month gap. Here’s an example of summer learning loss research from the Brookings Institution. Recovering the lost material t is costly and time consuming in the following school year.

In the sample schedules, we don’t just see gaps of three or six months, we see gaps of up to nine months in some very key topics. For example, the second scenario assumes a student can take Algebra 1 in 9th grade, take 24 weeks of Geometry, have a six month gap of spring + summer, take Precalculus for 24 weeks, have a NINE month gap of spring, summer and fall, then finally start taking math again in the winter and spring of senior year with 24 weeks of Calculus. Just looking at this makes me dizzy.

Overcoming these gaps is going to take a tremendous amount of extra parent work, tutoring and supplemental refreshing. But it will be essential, because there won’t be time in a 12 week class to re-teach material students have forgotten.

Frankly, moving to another school district or going to Running Start will be much simpler.

I’ve outlined a few of the problems with trimesters. There are many more. That’s why fewer than 100 schools nationwide, out of over 26,000 public high schools, use a trimester system.

Vashon tried trimesters for a dozen years, then switched to a semester schedule a few years ago – ironically because they felt it would not work with new state graduation requirements! This Vashon Beachcomber story mentions some of the problems they encountered, but Vashon has a much more stable population, one feeder middle school, and many other advantages compared to Highline.

I hope this op-ed is helpful to parents and students at making sense of how “more” opportunity is actually less, and of how mastering skills and being ready for college will not be possible in a trimester system. Please, do go to the meetings, bring your questions and please, do think about what would be best for you and your child.

– Stuart Jenner

NOTE: This Letter can also be downloaded as a PDF here.

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