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Rethinking Reshaping Schools

For too long, devotion to the traditional school schedule and organization has hindered major school reform, according to education consultant Heidi Hayes Jacobs. Outside-of-the box structures can mean more time for innovative learning strategies. Included: Suggestions for reforming school structures and schedules.

Efforts to reform U.S. schools remain hampered by traditional physical structures, schedules, teacher configurations, and student groupings, according to education consultant Heidi Hayes Jacobs. Schools need to reshape themselves inside and out to better meet students' needs.

Speaking to educators at the 2005 Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference, Jacobs noted that the U.S. has the shortest school day and school year of any industrialized nation, and curriculum has to be molded to fit those constraints.

"The schedule is curricular destiny," said Jacobs, who is president of Curriculum Designers, Inc., an educational consulting firm. One way to gain more time and flexibility is to lengthen the school year, but not necessarily require students to spend more time in classrooms. Students might use some of that additional time for learning online, attending night classes, or working with businesses and community organizations, according to Jacobs.

FOCUS ON THE WORK, NOT THE YEAR

Schools need to be reorganized overall to give students more flexibility in their learning and to allow teachers to meet more often, especially across grades and between schools, Jacobs continued.

A major change Jacobs recommends is dropping the traditional grade K-12 structure in favor of one that allows students to complete work at their own pace.

"Students should be allowed to graduate early when they are ready," according to Jacobs, who works with schools and K-12 districts in areas and practices related to curriculum reform, instructional strategies to encourage critical thinking, and strategic planning. "What about kids who can pass all the grades early?"

Those who require more than 12 years to master all the required skills should be allowed to spend an extra year in high school. When students graduate should depend on when they complete the work rather than when they've completed four years of high school, she said. "We need to replace seat time with task completion, some of which might be accomplished virtually."

High schools should be encouraged to toss out the traditional seven or eight-period day, and instead have rotating schedules or break up the day with athletics or extracurricular activities. They also should be organized around fundamental literacy skill needs and the study skill needs of individuals. "We need curriculum options for pre-adult learners, and we need more lab work," Jacobs said.

And instead of homework, schools should set up tutoring clusters for students in the building after school hours or in a community center.

ENSURING MORE SKILLS, MORE COMMUNICATION

All students also should have some vocational and life skills training, according to Jacobs, and life and work skills academies could meet the needs of non-college bound students.

"Should all learners in America be college-bound?" she asked. "We have not given dignity to the concept of going to work after high school."

Schools also could carry out their missions better if teacher assignments were reconfigured and high schools created partnerships among themselves to better share faculty resources.

Particularly in high school, teachers should meet to review work that is being done across the grades, said Jacobs. Ninth and tenth grade teachers should meet at least twice a year, because those years set the course for high school success.

"I think the wrong people meet all the time," Jacobs said. "They meet by habit and over-meet by grade and department. They should be meeting around a problemdaily planning time is very important." In grades K-12, teachers should meet six times a year to assess students' progress in meeting benchmarks.

MORE KID-FRIENDLY BUILDINGS, CONFIGURATIONS

For younger children, changes in curriculum and class assignments can make schools more kid-friendly. "Schools are not designed for kids -- but they are starting to be," Jacobs said. "We can do it with the curriculum."

Developmental grouping around age spans should replace ability grouping in the primary grades, according to Jacobs, and kindergarten teachers should communicate with pre-school teachers. More formal programs to work with parents and children to promote literacy could help improve reading skills.

Schools should consider using looping, the practice of a teacher staying with the same group of students for two or more years, more extensively in elementary schools. "We see better skills in kids with the same teacher or group of teachers for several years," added Jacobs.

At the middle school level, small group academies, advisories, vertical teams, and character education seminars all can be valuable ways to enhance learning. Getting kids learning outside of the building, using independent long-term projects, is a good learning strategy for this age, according to Jacobs. "Often kids say these projects helped them the most."

Better use of technology across the grades also can increase teachers' flexibility, by providing more efficient ways to teach and more creative assignments across the grades, Jacobs noted. Teachers can make use of e-mail, video conferencing, electronic field trips, electronic office hours, and global learning experiences. "Because of this [technology], we can work at our own time and pace," said Jacobs.