Alexandria School District 206 will face some tough decisions in the upcoming months.

Budget cuts and flat funding are to blame.

One decision is deciding whether or not to change the 7th and 8th grade schedule at Discovery Middle School from a seven-period day to a six-period day.

At Monday's regular school board meeting, a group of Discovery Middle School (DMS) teachers, led by Joel Wood and Mike Freborg, shared their concerns about the proposed schedule change.

In addition, DMS Principal Matt Aker, along with Judy Backhaus, human resources director at District 206, presented information from the district's perspective about the change in schedule.

WHAT THE TEACHERS HAD TO SAY

Wood, a music teacher at DMS, noted that he and Freborg were speaking on behalf of the staff at the middle school.

Both Wood and Freborg, who is an English teacher, said it is a difficult situation and that there are some areas that might take a hit, especially exploration, which includes music and art, if the schedule change is approved.

Freborg talked about the impact on students and listed a few of the concerns:

  •  Accountability for computer literacy in the 2012 state standards, along with no consistent middle school programming.
  •  Loss of sequencing for art, computers, family and consumer science (FACS), industrial tech (IT), health and foreign languages.
  •  Potential curriculum issues in 9th grade.
  •  Limited exploration for students.
  •  Difficult choices for students.
  •  Appropriateness of 55-minute class periods for 7th and 8th grade students.

"There is going to be limited exploration going from seven to six periods," said Freborg. "The choices are going to be limited."

Freborg noted that for 7th grade students, the schedule change will now force them to choose between art and music.

"One will have to go," he said. "And we are concerned with those choices."

Freborg continued by noting that part of the middle school philosophy is that students have the opportunity to explore different interest areas, like music and art, and that if students only have one option, what kind of impact will that have on them?

Wood talked about how the time spent in each class will change - some will decrease in minutes and some are increasing. For example, the four core classes for 7th grade - math, English, social and science - would go up in minutes per school year.

The amount of time a student spends in music and art in 7th grade will also increase, noted Wood, but only, he stressed, if they choose that subject.

"Not every student will take art and music [in 7th grade]," he said. "And that will be an issue for many families."

Wood also mentioned that this is the first time - that he is aware of in District 206 - that there will not be a 7th grade music requirement.

Seventh grade courses that will see a decrease in minutes include IT, computers and health.

As for 8th grade, the four core subjects will see an increase in minutes, as well as art, IT, music, phy ed, drama, computer, Spanish and French.

Two courses - FACS and human growth and development - would see a major decrease, as they would be eliminated.

In the new 8th grade schedule, students would be required to take the four core classes - math, English, social and science - along with phy ed and music or computers.

However, they will be required to choose four courses from the six electives that would be offered - IT I, IT II, Spanish, French, drama or art. This is why the minutes would increase in these courses.

"Under the new schedule, there would be no FACS or human growth - that will be dropped," said Wood.

Freborg said that some kids would be making choices that would be better to make at an older age. Some of the students, he said, are barely 12-years-old.

At one point, there was a task force that formed to help guide administrators and school board members in planning and preparing for the upcoming school year.

However, the task force members disbanded themselves.

According to Curt Mateer, a DMS teacher who contacted the newspaper on Tuesday, one of the reasons the task force disbanded is because the task force was going to make a recommendation not to change the schedule from seven periods to six periods, but felt that the recommendation would not be considered. Mateer said the task force felt that the change was not in the best interest of the students.

Because of the budget cuts, the group figured there would be positions cut and they didn't think it should be their decision to pick and choose positions/jobs. They felt it would be better left to administration to make those types of choices, according to Mateer.

Rhonda Blaser, a music teacher at DMS, sent an e-mail to the newspaper sharing her concerns. She said the proposed schedule will force 7th grade students to choose between music and art. The concern, she said, is when students would like to take both electives, but won't have the opportunity because of the proposed changes.

"Our current, local policy requires 7th grade students to choose a music, but now, that requirement would be dropped," said Blaser. "At the 8th grade level, students will need to choose between computer technology and music. Again, the same student would probably like to take both, but they will not have that option."

ADMINISTRATORS' POINT OF VIEW

Backhaus explained to school board members that they would not be taking action on the proposed schedule change at DMS at Monday night's meeting, but that they were just going to be given the information.

A decision, however, will be made at next month's meeting, which is slated for Monday, December 20 at 7 p.m.

Backhaus told school board members that the district is in this predicament primarily because of finances. The school district receives state funding based on a formula. It receives so many dollars per pupil unit. The last increase the district saw was during the 2007-2008 school year when the funding increased by 2.01 percent. The next three subsequent years - 2008-2009, 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 - the district did not receive any increases.

For the last three school year cycles, the funding formula allowance was at $5,124 per pupil unit.

In addition, because the state is going through tough financial times, the school district did not receive 100 percent of its funding for the last couple of years.

Two years ago, the district received 73 percent of its funding at the beginning of the school year and then the remaining 27 percent was received later.

In the meantime, because the district had bills to pay, said Backhaus, it had to borrow money.

"Now, not only did we not get all of our money, we had to pay interest on the money we had to borrow," she said.

Backhaus said the same thing happened last year, but that the school district received its funding in May. But prior to that, it once again had to borrow.

During the 2009-2010 school year, the district had to borrow $3 million because of the state aid shift. In 2010-2011, the district borrowed $2 million, said Backhaus.

She also noted that the district is bracing for the state's $6 billion shortfall and is also preparing for another year of flat funding.

Because of the state's $6 billion shortfall, the district could see a loss of $100 per pupil, which equals a $400,000 loss for District 206.

"It's very hard to protect the classroom," said Backhaus about the loss of funding. "And it doesn't feel very good. As we impact staff, we impact kids and it doesn't feel good."

She said the district has been working on how it can maintain and function the same within the district. By changing the schedule from seven-periods to six-periods at DMS, Backhaus said the district could save $300,000.

The district has worked hard, said Backhaus, to stay away from impacting staff but that it has had to make some very difficult decisions.

Aker, who became the DMS principal in July 2008, said the budget back then was gloomy at best. He provided a timeline of the planning process at DMS.

In January of 2010, Superintendent Quist presented a budget to the building leadership team at DMS.

A task force was formed with teacher and parent representatives in February (but has since disbanded). Options for how a six-period day would be structured were studied, and discussions were held about options for team time and home base.

"I respect the staff for bowing out of the task force," said Aker. He added that the research was left up to Backhaus, Quist and Julie Critz, director of teaching and learning.

In September of 2010, sample schedules were prepared and communication began with staff and parents, according to Aker.

The presentation to the school board was made in November and a final decision will be made in December.

"We knew that the tough decisions were coming our way," said Aker.

He explained that because of the budget cuts and the change to the schedule, DMS will have to look at cutting staff hours.

"About six to seven FTEs - which is not physical bodies, but pieces of FTEs - will be cut," said Aker.

FTE refers to full-time equivalent, which is based on hours worked by a staff member.

Aker said that it is important to give students choices and that the district wants to maintain those choices as much as possible.

When talking about the impact to students, Aker weighed out the pros and cons. Some of the pros he highlighted included the fact that all elective offerings remain for 7th graders; there is a potential to create a "healthy decisions" course, which would combine content from FACS and health; increased number of minutes in each class (from 45 to 55 minutes); reduce amount of passing time between classes; increase time in class with teachers - 330 minutes daily versus 315 mintues; and one less course to manage each quarter.

The cons, said Aker, include reduced number of weeks per elective; one elective offering eliminated for 8th grade; and students will not experience every elective area in 7th and 8th grade.

Aker also talked about the pros and cons for staff members. The pros were that teachers would increase their minutes in front of students each day; they would have the same amount of teaching time as peers throughout the building; more time within periods to meet required standards and curriculum; and the maintaining of all program offerings in elective areas.

The cons, according to Aker, included the fact that teachers would lose daily team time; not all students will enter 9th grade with the same skill level in elective areas due to choices; and there would be a reduction of weeks for program offerings in elective areas.

After Aker thanked the school board, he admitted it's been tough.

He also thanked the DMS staff and said they have been "very professional" and heartfelt in the decision-making process. He thanked them for being a part of the team.

School Board Chair Dean Anderson thanked all of those who presented information on the schedule change and said, "I know it's been difficult."

CONCERNS

Discovery Middle School Music Teacher Joel Wood provided summary points of the issues/concerns shared by Discovery Middle School teachers, which included:

  •  Loss of continuity in subjects prior to 9th grade.
  •  Loss of teaming and curriculum development during the student day.
  •  Loss of exploration courses. Students will instead select electives.
  •  Congestion in hallways between class periods and phy ed class numbers in the locker room.
  •  Appropriateness of 55-minute class periods for 7th and 8th grade students.
  •  Sports added in recent years while academics have been reduced.
  •  Multiple intelligences/opportunities for success/interdisciplinary connections.
  •  Unknown how reading will be changed.

STATE STANDARDS

The standards set by the state require students in 7th and 8th grade to have the four core classes - math, English, social and science. In addition, phy ed must be offered each year in 7th and 8th grade; health standards must be covered through the grade span of 6th through 8th grade, however, not required each year; and during grades K-8, districts must offer three art courses, but only require two standards in dance, music, theater and/or visual arts. (Visual arts and music are taught in all elementary schools.)