How Do You Support Whole-Child Learning? One Massachusetts School's Student-Centered, Personalization Journey
At Andover High School in Massachusetts, administration was searching for transformation. As in many schools across the country, educators are seeking a way to improve learning for students, to make the shift from a schedule driven by content, to one that enables students to build relationships, master what they're learning and be driven by passion to do so. At Andover High School, these were their goals. They ran a semester block schedule but felt that students didn't have time to really build relationships with teachers, or truly grasp the material they were learning before they had to move on to something else. They knew something needed to change. Then came the essential question.
What is the 'Essential Question?'
After taking a look at their goals, trying to figure out what it really was they wanted to accomplish, the administrative team at Andover came up with what called the 'essential question':
"How do we create a structure that shifts from academic compliance to whole child opportunities for all students?"
Their answer to this question was the proposal to switch to a different schedule, that they named '7+H.' This schedule included seven, shorter periods that would last all year, as well as one flexible block (often called a flex block or activity period) of time called 'H Block' that would serve as a time for personalized support and enrichment. But change takes time, and is rarely easy. Philip Conrad, principal of Andover High School, and assistant principal Caitlin Brown delved into their process at our recent webinar. They discussed how they met with challenges along the way, nitty-gritty details of how they managed their new schedule, as well as the positive impact these changes have had on students.
Q: How did you approach the FLEX process?
Conrad: The flex process was part of a larger process for us. We had a semeterized block schedule prior to the change in our schedule, we now have what we call our 7+H, and I'll talk more about that later on. But getting from the semesterized block to the 7+H included an accreditation visit from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, it included contract negotiations, for teachers changing from teaching 5 out of 8 to teaching 6 out of 8, and then continuing to have that 75% time as student contact time, one of those blocks becoming a personalization block instead of a sixth class. And the reason it took so long is because of the contentious negotiations between the district and the school union, the teachers' union, and and it took a long time for that to ferment. There were a lot of people that worked really hard on it, and got it to a place where it was ready to go; and then funding became an issue, and so we had to wait an extra year...but it was a very collaborative, very long process, but it included a lot of people, including students, parents, school committee members, teachers, administrators; and it was really built over a long period of time...There were a number of principals who came and went during the process, and that sort of slowed things down. So when I arrived, the schedule was pretty much set, this was what we were going to go to, it had been negotiated, and my job was really to understand it and then let people know how it would work and what the benefits were.
Q: What is the 'Essential Question', and why would this be so important to schools looking to build a flex period?
Conrad: I think the reason it was so important to us, and why it's important to other schools, is really giving students, all students, opportunities to develop interests, to develop their passions, to really understand material, instead of just complying with the expectations that are in front of them. And this was our opportunity to do that -- to change the dynamic for students about what schools looks like and what control they had over their school and their learning.
Q: So talk about your challenges, and obviously your school is not unique to similar challenges.
Conrad: Sure. So we really saw that kind of content drive as a treadmill, and wanted to look at a new way, or sort of the windmill in the 'Don Quixote' sort of sense of it. Our schedule had been semesterized classes. So we wanted to lengthen the classes so that we would have students from September to June. We also wanted to make sure that we had long and shorter periods, but not really short. We had had 84-minute blocks, our current schedule has 80-minute, 75-minute, and 60-minute blocks; so we don't have any classes that are less than 60. We also wanted to have variation in the schedule. Our old schedule was 1, 2, 3, 4, get up and do it again 1, 2, 3, 4; so we wanted to have variation. Our current schedule has five classes each day, and we have 3 classes that don't meet each day. We have an 8-period schedule, only 5 meet each day, and we have an 8-day cycle. So we don't talk about weeks anymore, we talk about cycles. And we really really wanted to add personalization, so that kids could see their teachers during the school day, and we also wanted to add an advisory period. So we were able to do all of that with the '7+H' schedule, with 'H block' being our personalization and advisory period.
Changing a school schedule is no small feat, and there are a lot of stakeholders. Teachers, students, parents, administration -- it's not likely that all will agree on or embrace changes. It may take some time for all to understand what these changes, if implemented, would look like, and why it's being considered. Specifically, students at Andover were not at first enthusiastic about these proposed changes.
Q: So, based on your looking back, and not that you look to the past, but for the purpose of helping schools today, are there some things that you might have instituted, whether it's surveys, maybe a different approach, or an enhanced approach? Not that that was broken in the past, but are there some things that you would give or advise schools to do today that might be running into similar circumstances?
Conrad: I think one of the biggest things I would do is make sure that students had a voice in it, I would make sure teachers had a voice in it and also that teachers were informed throughout the process. One of the parts of the process here was that there was a committee that met that didn't report out on a regular basis, so I think I would make sure that committees were reporting out on a regular basis, I would make sure that students were included. And with students, one of the things that we found was that the students who had been included or had been given voice, had been given voice early on in the process. So by the time it got to a place where it looked like this was actually gonna happen, those students who were going to be affected felt like they hadn't had any voice and therefore no students had had voice, when in fact students had had voice, but they had had voice 5, or 6 years earlier. And those students were no longer around. So we had students who were very opposed to this schedule, even though it hadn't been implemented yet. They created a website and got about 300 comments on their website, questions, reasons people didn't like it, rumors about the schedule. So I brought the kids who had created the schedule into my office, we met, probably over a couple of months, and we answered all 300 questions. They posted those answers on their website. They understood the schedule probably better than anybody else in the building because we had walked through every aspect of the schedule, including miscommunications about the schedule, rumors about the schedule, and things that just weren't true about the new schedule. Those guys were sophomores at the time, they're actually seniors now, and the best part for me is that we recently asked them what they were thinking about the schedule, and they did a video for us about the schedule, how much they liked the schedule, how much they liked H Block, and they did it during an H Block and they mentioned it in the video that they were doing this during H Block. So that was a real win for me. I felt like we incorporated them into it, and they understood it and were able to describe it to people very knowledgeably.
Check out the video of Andover students discussing the schedule changes, and what made them change their mind. They explain the benefits they now enjoy, including what H Block allows them to do.
But it wasn't just student voice that mattered. Conrad also shared how essential it was to get teachers and parents involved in the process. For parents especially it was a concern that the new schedule wouldn't meet students' needs.
Conrad: That really is an important piece, to make sure that the parents understand why, the difference. For our parents it was really important for them to understand why we thought kids taking eight classes (per year) was not in their best interests, but then having them take 7 classes and then having a personalization block was more in their interests. And were a high achieving high school here in Massachusetts, we have students who go off to top colleges and universities, and we wanted to assure our parents that our kids would continue to go off to high-level colleges and universities with this new schedule, and one of the ways we did that was we told them that the personalization was going to give their students opportunities to engage in passion projects, passionate research, and really dive into information that they were learning in a way that was going to make them stand out from their peers who just took coursework the way our old schedule had students doing it.
Caitlyn Brown added that in the year before the schedule change was set to take effect, Conrad met with every PTO, even at the Middle and Elementary level, as well as had open sessions at the local library for parents to attend. This was a decision that involved the community, and the goal was to have everyone understand, have their questions answered, and ultimately be onboard for these changes. Community involvement, she shared, was "vital to the success of the schedule."
Another key to success, in the early stages of their transformation, was taking note of what peer schools were doing. They could see some trying to make the very same changes they were at Andover, some successfully and some not so much. What made some schools unsuccessful? Says Conrad, "I think the biggest piece about the unsuccessful ones were the ones that didn't have a way to sort of assure themselves of where kids were and what kids were doing during this time." Then they met with a school in NH who was successfully managing this type of schedule, and able to keep track of kids during their flexible block, and was targeting student interventions, which eventually led Andover to Enriching Students. But that wasn't all; they made visits to these schools, gathered data, made comparisons, and looked to the future. Ultimately they worked to make the schedule as successful as it could be, they included students, parents, teachers, and administrators -- so that this would be a schedule they actually wanted.
The Personalization Piece
The schedule they created is fluid and rotates on 6-day cycles. 'H Block' is used for advisory, but also personalization opportunities, like passion projects, extra help, intervention and more. Teachers can schedule students for various projects, or perhaps intervention during this time, and students are able to schedule themselves to different teachers as well. As a result, students are given rich learning opportunities.
Q: What are some examples of why teachers would schedule students, examples of why students would schedule, and how do they see this, and more importantly, can the teachers create offerings, special adjusted courses, and how do they do that?
Brown: Yes, so really, for the first year, we actually had teachers scheduling all the students, so I think that was really helpful for us to understand how to use Enriching Students. This year, we do allow students to schedule themselves. We do have teachers who will allow students to make up tests, make up labs, get some extra help, extra support in a subject area. Just this past week we had our journalism teacher bring in a professor from a local college to speak to his journalism students. So there's a wide range of use, for our H2-H5 (the school's flexible block periods), and the administration works with the teachers, in case they would like to do an enrichment and bring in a speaker, but we kind of work with the teachers in collaboration to make the best use of H2-H5.
Conrad: Another thing I would like to add to that is as a school, so a school-wide thing, in our old schedule we were always taking time away from the teachers, so if we did something during the first period we'd be taking kids out of their classes. Now, we're able to schedule class assemblies..we're able to schedule all of that during H Block...Our guidance department is able to deliver their developmental guidance curriculum during H Block to the students of the guidance counselor. So it used to be, for example, that the guidance counselors might go in and talk to freshmen, but they might not be talking to their freshmen, about whatever it was. Now, they're able to target, and they're able to collect up their freshmen, so just this past week our guidance counselors were meeting with freshmen, and they were meeting over a couple of different days, so they were able to meet with all of their own students, personalizing that relationship as well.
They've also been able to use this time to help kids connect to community members, to have school concerts for band or chorus, and ultimately be flexible and get the whole school involved in things that may otherwise have been more exclusive. Students also use this time to prepare for upcoming tests and collaborate on school projects, and the school has seen peer tutoring grow as well. These opportunities build a stronger school and a better culture.
Is it Really Worth It?
Q: What's been the most positive takeaway, or even feedback you've received?
Conrad: Students really appreciate having that opportunity during the school day to do what they want, and to meet with their peers, particularly for younger students, sophomores and freshmen, who are doing group projects. Our parents seem to appreciate that they're not driving the students all over town, trying to meet up or drive them to the library so that they can meet there. Also our teachers mentioned that, over the years, they had been eroding their own class time by giving students time to work on group projects in their classes, so they don't feel like they have to do that, they feel like they can schedule them during H Block instead so the students can work together on that, with their peers, and not have to get rides and worry about when and where they're going to do it, and so on and so forth.
Q: Any accolades that you'd like to talk about that you think are associated with having this flexible approach built in?
Conrad: Sure, so we recently polled our seniors, and the parents of seniors, and both of those groups are in the 95% in favor or highly in favor of the H Block, feeling like its really helped their students, or that its reduced stress for their students, so that's been a really positive feedback for us. Also, our retention rate, that is, students who have failed classes and didn't move from 9th grade to 10th grade or 10th grade to 11th grade; was reduced by 35%, so those are two pieces that we know straight away. You know we had that group, that was against the schedule, but now they're one of the best advocates I have for this schedule, having made a video to talk about the benefits of the schedule for them, particularly the personalization block.
The initial goal at Andover was to support whole child learning; to provide academically for students, as well as give them personalized opportunities that would help them grow as individuals. Were these goals met? According to Conrad, yes! "I think it's worthwhile because it helps all kids to really take control of parts of their learning, and that's really important," he shared. When students feel that they have a say in their education, that they are learning about things that matter to them, and benefit them, their school experience will improve, and they will be more prepared for what comes next. This schedule change that Andover made gave students this freedom, and it also helped them achieve better academically, reduce stress, and stay on top of their work. Giving students time to do what they need to do helped personalize learning at Andover High School. If you are a teacher or administrator, maybe it could do the same at your school!