SOLON– Sixty-four percent of Solon’s middle school students participate in either band or choir.
But for the remaining 35 percent, there are no options except study hall.
The scheduling dilemma was discussed at the April 8 meeting of the Solon school board and options will be explored in the coming months as administrators attempt to align possible academic changes with a long-range facilities plan.
The Solon Middle School operates on an eight-period day, but the periods are now arranged in a adjusted block to allow for a transition to the high school’s block schedule.
It’s been that way since the fifth-through-eighth grade middle school concept was adopted, shortly after the construction of the Solon High School over a decade ago.
At the April meeting, Middle school principal Mike Herdliska reported to board members that the driving force for keeping the schedule was no longer the idea of a middle school vision.
“What has forced us to keep it, to some degree, is it meshes real well with the high school schedule and we share a minimum of four teachers in any given year,” Herdliska said.
Language arts is taught in a two-period block every day, while social studies and science meet as a block every other day, he said. Math meets daily as a single period. Toss in physical education, band and chorus, and that leaves only the third period open for exploratory classes.
“This schedule works real well for the kids that are involved in both band and choir,” Herdliska noted. “No study halls– the day is full. That’s what really drives our schedule.”
The middle school has outstanding involvement in the fine arts, Herdliska reported. Fifty-three percent of students are involved in choir, almost a third are in the band. Close to two-thirds are in one or the other.
But if they’re not involved in band or choir, the open periods become study halls, he said. And since band meets daily (chorus every other day) a student not taking either class could end up with three study halls in a typical two-day cycle.
That was the very scene painted by Amber Marty, parent of a middle school student who is not involved in the fine arts, during the public comment portion of the agenda.
Marty was concerned about the lack of electives at the middle school, the absence of parental involvement in the scheduling process and the administration’s response.
“My frustration has snowballed once again at the lack of attention being given to these needs,” Marty said. Her daughter has been identified as one of 22 students qualified for higher math instruction, she said, but the district’s plan was to reintegrate them into regular math classes as opposed to providing additional academic opportunities.
“I am asking for a sense of urgency placed on this change,” she said. “A district must provide some extension to the core if students have mastered skills.
“As it stands today, my message to my daughter is the district is settling for mediocrity regardless of her success,” she said. “This is not academic excellence.”
Herdliska tackled the complex nature of the schedule later in the meeting.
“Unfortunately when you talk about solutions, how you fix that problem, the fix isn’t always as easy as filling it in with something,” Herdliska explained.
The challenging part about the schedule, he said, is that it’s three-dimensional. There’s the student schedule, but it has to coordinate with the schedule of the school and the teacher.
“Any adjustment to the student part of it has ripples that affect the master schedule,” he said.
Making it even more complex is the desire to add intervention time to the school day, allowing for more remedial and enrichment opportunities.
“We’ve got more that we’d like to put in the school day for all kids and not take anything out,” Herdliska said.
When asked whether online opportunities exist, Herdliska said most to his knowledge are geared toward college credit classes for high school students.
The question, superintendent Sam Miller interjected, is whether or not the schedule can be improved.
“I think it can,” Miller said. But it has to be done carefully.
“Changing the schedule, as you know, is a big deal because there’s always unintended consequences,” Miller said, “which is why I really think it’s important that stakeholders are engaged in the process.”
Any idea will have to be considered for all of its ramifications, Miller noted, and the district will have to be prepared to any questions and explain the reasoning behind a proposal.
“That’s why I think it’s important for us to analyze the schedule and say can we make it better?” Miller said. “Can we have students engaged and not be in a situation where they’re in study hall, which we know is not a good place for 13, 14, 15-year old students.”
The process has begun, Miller observed, and this was the starting point.
He suggested the district administration could come back to the board with a framework of ideas for review. When asked whether the overhaul could be completed in a year, Miller didn’t rule it out.
“It sounds simple, but it really is extremely complicated building schedules,” he explained. “Even with technology, it will take a principal weeks and weeks to get his master schedule to the point where you can go with it.”
But the district has committed itself to the issue and has started working on it, he said. The district is already working on a facilities plan and the middle school will be a big part of it, he said, making this perhaps a logical time to look at scheduling.
Board member Dick Schwab suggested more time be made for math and science, even if it meant sacrificing school time for band and chorus. “Philosophically, we’ve got to richen this up with STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) kinds of classes, in my opinion,” he said.
Board member Dean Martin said it would be nice to have a broader range of opportunities for students, but urged a thorough approach. “I do agree it needs to be a well thought-out process, so if we make the change we make the right change,” Martin said.
Miller indicated a framework should be ready for review by the May board meeting, but he encouraged the board to be aware of the staffing implications behind any decision and the budget issues that might result.
Board member Dan Coons understood.
“I think the elephant in the room is we know what the scores are in the middle school, they’re not what they should be,” Coons said. “I feel like we need to up our ante here academically first.”
Board president Dave Asprey concluded by pointing to the district’s mission statement and noting that the Solon district is at least in a position to address the problem.
“We could be having a much worse discussion about cutting programs and how are we going to make our ends meet and how many teachers are we going to have to let go,” Asprey said. “From that perspective I think this is a very good and important discussion to be having.”