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Panel proposes new class schedule at VHS

By NATALIE MARTIN
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Editor
March 20, 2013 · Updated 1:09 PM
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School district officials have suggested wholesale changes to  Vashon High School’s class schedule in an effort to address what they see as problems in the current system that hamper academics.

But the proposal to overhaul the schedule is being met with mixed reviews by students, some of whom worry the new approach will limit their choices and harm their competitiveness in college applications.

“We might try to have some sort of rally … to show in numbers that we don’t support it,” said Zoey Salsbury, a sophomore at VHS.

A 17-person committee tasked with rethinking the middle school and high school’s class schedules put forward a proposal this month to move the high school from a five-period trimester schedule to a six-period semester schedule, saying the new system would, among other things, eliminate problematic gaps in instruction that occur in the current schedule. The move would reduce the number of classes a student takes each year from 15 to 12.

Salsbury, however, says high schoolers are concerned that the proposed schedule won’t allow them to take as many electives and would mean they earned fewer credits overall. She spoke out against the recommendation at last Thursday’s school board meeting.

“It isn’t going to make us stand out in college applications. Please don’t risk our future,” she told the board.

Salsbury and some of her friends have created an online petition that as of Tuesday had garnered more than 80 digital signatures. They also created a Facebook page, “Keep Trimesters at VHS,” which has gotten 140 likes. There are about 500 students at Vashon High School.

“I don’t know that we’ll find a schedule that everyone is 100 percent unanimous about,” said Stephanie Spencer, the vice-principal at VHS who headed the committee. Aside from a group of students concerned about the proposal, the committee has gotten mostly positive feedback, she said.

“In general I would say there’s a lot of positive energy,” she said.

Spencer and other administrators say there have been concerns and complaints about the trimester system at VHS for years. Many core classes are only assigned for two of three trimesters in a year, creating gaps in instruction that can become problematic, especially in skills-based classes such as math or foreign languages, where continuous practice is helpful, Spencer and others said. And when state testing comes around, some students have had more instruction time in certain subjects than other students.

The current schedule also makes it difficult for advanced students at McMurray Middle School, which is already on a six-period semester schedule, to take classes at the high school or for teachers to split their time between the two schools.

After months of research, surveys, visits to other school and meetings with teachers, parents and students, the schedule committee unanimously decided to recommend that the high school move from trimesters to semesters, with six periods a day rather than five.

“It’s been a very well-thought-out process with a lot of feedback along the way,” Spencer said.

Salsbury, however, said many VHS students don’t want to see the school move to semesters and believe their opinions aren’t being heard. At a student meeting on Friday, some were visibly upset, she said.

“There was really no one voicing a positive opinion of it,” Salsbury said.

Of chief concern to students is losing elective options. The current trimester schedule is known for providing several open class periods each year for students to fill with popular electives, such as jewelry making or video production.

“There’s so much I would have missed out on had we been on a semester schedule,” Salsbury said.

Students involved in year-round elective classes such as band or theater are especially concerned about having their options limited, she said.

“The people who do yearbook and newspaper are outraged,” she said.

High schoolers are also concerned that under a semester system, students would take fewer classes over the course of the year and the school would gradually move from requiring 28 credits to graduate to 22 credits, just over the state requirement of 20. Some believe the higher number of credits gives VHS students an advantage in the college admissions process.

“It feels like they really know what they want to do, and unless something serious changes, they’re going to do what they want to do no matter what community members say,” Salsbury said.

Spencer, however, said she thinks the students might feel better about the proposal if they understood the details better. The concerns they are bringing up, she said, are the same issues the committee spent months discussing.

For instance, Spencer said, the committee believes elective options won’t be as limited as student imagine. What’s more, committee members who pored over high school transcripts found that over the course of their high school career, most students ended up retaking electives designed to be taken only once. No elective classes would be discontinued under the proposal, she said, although some older students may have to choose between taking advanced placement academic classes or electives.

“It really depends on the individual student and what they’re pursuing,” Spencer said.

Spencer said it was also a misunderstanding that earning just 22 credits would give students a disadvantage in applying to college. Colleges don’t take credits at face value, but consider how much class time students spent to earn them, often refiguring the credit hours, she said.

“It’s still the same pie. Whether you cut it into eight pieces or 20 pieces, you’re still getting the rigor. You’re still getting the credits you need for college,” she said.

The committee has also incorporated some student requests into its proposal, Spencer noted, such as longer lunchtimes and more SMART periods, time during the day when students can do homework or get help in specific subjects.

“Just because you didn’t get everything on your wish list doesn’t mean you weren’t heard or these things weren’t vetted,” she said.

Philip VanDevanter, a junior at VHS who has attended some meetings on the schedule, said he at first thought the school should stay on trimesters but now sees the merits of the semester system.

“It seems like there’s a gap between what the committee knows and has found and the amount that students know about it,” he said.

Stephen Floyd, a teacher who is on the schedule committee, said that he can see both sides of the issue. As a theater teacher at VHS, he’s concerned that under the semester system fewer students would participate in drama year after year as they do now. But, Floyd added, he’s also an English teacher at VHS and would prefer to have students take his class for a full year rather than two trimesters.

“As an English teacher, in part I feel like it allows for more reading and more writing, to have students for a full year. I feel like it expands opportunities for rigorous curriculum rather than shrinking it,” he said.

Superintendent Michael Soltman, who sat in on the student meeting on Friday, said he hadn’t made up his mind about the schedule recommendation. He and the schedule committee will hear more student and parent feedback this week, he said, and he hopes to make a decision by the next school board meeting on March 27.

“I want the committee to be responsive to what they hear and see if that causes them to make any adjustments in their recommendation,” he said.

 

 

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