Last week, island parents learned that Vashon Island School District has planned a dramatic change in its school calendar for online learning at Vashon High School and McMurray Middle School, switching from a semester calendar to a calendar based on school quarters.
McMurray and VHS parents first received the news on Thursday, Aug. 13, via emails from the principals of the McMurray and VHS, and all parents in the district were further notified on Friday, Aug. 14, in an email from VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy. This email linked a 20-page document called Vashon Learning 2.0 Guide, detailing schedules for students at all three Vashon schools.
The new plan requires middle and high school students to cycle through all their required classes and electives attending only three classes per quarter, with classes in math, science and language arts not taught in consecutive nine-week quarters.
McSheehy’s Aug. 14 email to parents touted community involvement in helping to create the plan, citing guidance from a 60-member VISD Reopening Team that met four times in the spring and once in August. He also cited 824 responses to surveys, sent out in early June, to seek feedback about the district’s implementation of online school in the spring, as well as preferences for education in the fall — which at that time included several scenarios for online and in-person hybrid models.
A summary of findings from the surveys is published deep inside a reopening plan and template required by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
“I’m confident our planning has been improved greatly given the feedback from students, families, and staff and if the documents are reviewed, our public will see results of their thoughtful feedback represented in the actual plans,” McSheehy said, who also praised the work of the school’s reopening team in devising the surveys and analyzing their results.
In an email, school board chair Rheagan Sparks told The Beachcomber that she had learned of the plan to move to a quarters calendar on Aug. 12, when VHS and McMurray made their announcements.
However, she clarified that she knew the plan was one of many being considered, “based on verbal conversation with Slade and others close to the process.”
“Every board member has a minimum of one individual virtual meeting per week with Slade, so I assume all the board members had the opportunity to hear the same info, as well as via their social contacts with teachers and other staff at the high school and middle school who were working on the schedule planning,” she added.
According to Vashon Education Association co-president Sarah Hamill, teachers were not broadly consulted in the formation of the plan to shift the school calendar.
“A small group of building leaders was presented with the schedule at the middle school and the high school,” Hamill told The Beachcomber in an email. “Within that group, the responses varied. Those opposed to the quarter schedule are concerned about the lack of continuity and the necessity of year-long instruction for certain classes. Advocates of the plan cited the need to provide fewer classes creating less stress on families and students. Building leaders also wondered, if we had not addressed this earlier, we might have come up with a solution that met more needs.”
McSheehy confirmed in an email that he had met with the teacher group on Tuesday, Aug. 11, after teachers had returned from their summer break.
Board member Bob Hennessey, when contacted by The Beachcomber, said he was unaware the calendar change was being considered until he learned about it in documents sent to the board on Aug. 10.
“We have difficult deadlines to meet and our principals and staff are working furiously to get school ready for our kids,” Hennessey said. “However, a basic rule should be no surprises. It’s not the staff’s job to be driving communications with the community. That responsibility belongs to district leadership, and it was obviously not done well.”
The VISD school board has held only regular, once-monthly board meetings throughout the summer, and the topic of moving to a quarters calendar has not been discussed in these public meetings.
During the July board meeting, the board declined a suggestion by Hennessey to have a special work session to review the school’s plan for online education prior to its announcement in August.
However, with one day’s notice, Sparks did call a special one-hour work session for the board to go over aspects of the plan one hour prior to the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 13.
Much of the beginning of that session was taken up with a discussion of what would and what would not be voted on by the board at the regular meeting. The board learned that they would vote to approve a lengthy and required a re-opening plan and template to be submitted to OSPI, detailing safety and other aspects of the district’s plan to begin the fall with online instruction only.
But McSheehy clarified that the district’s specific Learning 2.0 guide, detailing specifics about the school’s plans for fall including a calendar shift from semesters to quarters, was not up for a vote.
At the special meeting, VHS principal Danny Rock, who worked in a small team made up of principals, vice-principals and other school leaders to create the calendar change, spoke at length about why the decision to opt for a quarter-based system had been made.
He noted that the model needed to be flexible enough to meet the needs of students who were not engaging or who had difficulty adapting both to remote learning and continued life in a pandemic.
“I think that there was an important consideration around what model will give us more capacity, and I’m not just talking about even staff capacity, I’m also talking about the capacity of families, the capacity of students,” he said, adding that the district learned lessons from implementing a remote learning curriculum in the spring. “We collected a lot of data and we talked to a lot of individual students and families and it showed us that we need capacity when we’re going to try to take on this coming school year.”
But a cascade of public comments, read aloud by McSheehy at the beginning of the regular board meeting, reflected strong opposition to the plan, with many asking for the board to consider delaying implementation so that more feedback from the community could be gathered and addressed. The comments — three in favor of the plan and 20 against — ranged from concerns about the lack of meaningful community input on the plan to the break in the continuation of learning posed by alternating three subject periods in a quarter-based model.
In his letter, Raymond W. Preiss, Ph.D., wrote that the quarter model eliminates opportunities for teachers to reinforce key concepts and intervene when students are having difficulty learning a challenging topic, undermining retention.
“The additional weeks in the semester regimen allowed many unnoticed, but vital opportunities to coach, mentor, and inspire students,” he wrote. “The quarter system too often sacrifices these moments of deep learning and reflection for the need to wrap-it-up and get to the next menu of classes.”
Less than a handful of public commentators felt that the remote learning schedules would better suit student learning and routine.
“I like this schedule because as we’ve all learned by now, sitting in front of a computer is exhausting, and so limiting a quarter to three periods with longer class periods and breaks in between, instead of trying to cram in all six in a day, seems a lot more sane,” wrote parent Bella Ormseth.
At the meeting, Sparks responded with brief comments addressing the criticism of the plan and its rollout to the public, which she later expanded upon in an email to The Beachcomber.
“I feel the community needs to understand that the decision to open VHS and McMurray on a quarter system is a holistic one,” Sparks said in the email. “It is not only a choice of a preferred academic model but also a choice of district resource capacity against the backdrop of remote learning. A quarter system has challenges, but we know what those inherent challenges are and can work to mitigate them. VISD leadership feels the quarter system has the most benefits for our families, students and staff, and is the most sustainable given limited resources and OSPI mandates. I trust our VISD leadership to know their work best.”
And in his email to the Beachcomber on Monday, McSheehy said that equity concerns had driven the decision to move to the quarter model.
He described the process by which he, school principals and vice-principals had first arrived at their decision, and then presented it to teacher leaders after they returned from summer vacation one day before the plan was announced.
“A three-period/quarter schedule provided our at-risk families an accessible, aligned, and supportive schedule. However, [it] provided challenges during the off-quarter for subjects such as math and foreign languages,” he said. “A six-period/semester schedule provided for continuous learning in those subjects, however, would disadvantage our most vulnerable students and families who were not able to adequately access our remote learning model in the Spring. This is an equity issue first and foremost for VISD and we intend to support our students and families furthest away from social justice.”
He also acknowledged that community engagement in the process had fallen short of the mark.
“These are not normal times and we all would like more time to process with our families, staff, and community partners,” he said. “Unfortunately, Board and community engagement was not optimal, however, our families should also know that we are eager to hear more from our community and are working on a solution to get more family engagement while also adhering to the timelines set forth by OSPI.”
— Paul Rowley contributed to this article.