Davenport School Board discussions about switching three high schools from a block schedule back to a traditional schedule have been brewing since at least 2012.
On Tuesday, the board decided to begin to revert to a traditional schedule in the fall of 2020. It will spend the next year evaluating how to minimize the impact on students.
In a September 2012 meeting, according to Quad-City Times archives, the board was told the total savings from laying off teachers, increasing teaching time and adding costs for new materials for the switch back would likely save the district between $1.5 and $1.6 million. It was called a “strictly financial” decision. The idea resurfaced in September 2014; 23 teachers would lose their jobs, if the plan was approved. Former Superintendent Art Tate recommended keeping block scheduling, and in November 2014, the board unanimously decided to forgo the financial savings opportunity and keep the block schedule.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, the board could no longer afford the same luxury; Central, North and West High Schools will return to a traditional schedule. The district expects to save between $1.1 and $1.4 million annually, through eliminating 20 full-time employees.
What is a block schedule?
A block schedule has four class periods per day, each for 90 minutes; teachers instruct for three of those periods. In a traditional schedule, there are seven 50-minute classes per day, and instructors teach for six periods. Because teachers are leading more classes, a traditional schedule is supposed to save money by requiring fewer teachers.
“That’s the real cost savings — teachers will be teaching more periods,” Rob Scott, associate superintendent, said on Wednesday. “It is a cost savings. There are strengths to both. We’re going to be doing everything we can to put a task force together to try to minimize the impact on the students. That’s our focus.”
With only four class periods, the block schedule gets through material much quicker, on a quarter system, rather than semesters. It also increases the number of credits available, with 32 maximum credits, compared with 28 with the traditional schedule. The traditional system, though, has classes run for the entire year, and some subjects — especially math and foreign languages — can benefit from decreasing the gap in instruction.
Block schedules in the Quad-Cities
The three Davenport high schools didn’t adopt block schedules at the same time; Central High School was first. Discussions at Central, Bettendorf and Moline High Schools were ramping up in late 1995, according to Times archives. North Scott and Maquoketa had already adopted the schedules in the two years prior.
In November 1995, Central put the switch to a vote: to pass, 70% of the school's teachers needed to approve, and it would start in the fall of 1996. More than 85% of the teachers endorsed it. Bettendorf would adopt the change two months later.
The Times covered the transition at Central the first year; one reported benefit of block scheduling was it could reduce discipline problems, in part because there is less “passing time” between classes. In March 1997, 83% of the 705 students surveyed said the school climate was “the same or better than last year.”
A few years later, North started to seriously consider adopting the block schedule. In December 2000, then-Principal Jim Andrews said the change would “not cost the district any money.” West High School was the last to adopt the block schedule, in 2006.
When the Davenport high schools revert to traditional scheduling in 2020, Bettendorf will be the only major public school district in the Quad-Cities with a block schedule; Pleasant Valley, Moline, Rock Island and United Township all adhere to schedules with either seven or eight periods.
At the meeting Monday night, the board was presented with a comparison between block and traditional schedules. North High School senior and student school board member Esmee Belzer cited several discrepancies between the list and her experiences with the block schedule the past four years.
“For me, a block schedule has been really, really beneficial,” she said. “If you look at the quality of education versus the money you’re saving, I personally don’t think it’s going to be better just to save money.”
While the traditional schedule is purported to have less of an impact on students with a daily absence, Belzer said she thought missing seven classes instead of four would have a “much bigger impact.”
She also said while the block schedule didn’t have a traditional study hall, there was a 30-to-35-minute period that served a similar function.
Belzer’s biggest concern was with AP classes, many of which require three of the block schedule’s four quarters.
“I don’t really know how AP classes would be affected if we went to a traditional schedule,” she said. “We’re struggling with getting behind — especially with the snow days this year — but we always struggle with time.”
Some academic initiatives in Davenport High Schools were built around the block schedule, especially dual enrollment, which allows high school students to take college courses at North High School. Scott, though, said he didn’t see any problem converting the classes to a traditional schedule.
“In some cases, it’s a better fit, because colleges actually teach on a semester level, and we’re on a quarter,” he said. “The flow of the classes matches up better.”
While the block schedule was previously touted more than 20 years ago as a way to decrease discipline problems, Scott said the district didn’t have “any sort of data suggesting that’s what happened.”
The school board faces immense pressure from the state School Budget Review Committee to cut $13 million from the district’s general budget. A drastic two-year plan was approved — with some fluidity — in November, and one of the measures discussed was to switch high school scheduling.
“Right now, we don’t have a million dollars sitting around. We don’t have another way to save a million dollars,” Director Allison Beck said Monday night. “My personal opinion is that the quality of education will be equal. It will take some adjustments.”
Director Dan Gosa was the only board member to vote against the switch. Director Clyde Mayfield was not present and did not vote.
While Director Bruce Potts said he was concerned about how the switch would hurt students’ ability to take electives, especially in STEM coursework, he believed students were adaptable and the board had to follow through, even if it was unpleasant.
“We have to find that $1.4 million someplace else. That’s a big hunk,” he said. “… We don’t want to close a school, we don’t want to change from a block schedule — then where does it come from? I don’t know.”
In 2014, the discussions portrayed the switch as being purely a financial opportunity. Five years later, that seems to still be true, at least for most board members.
“Right now, we have two years to cut quite a chunk. If this is at least a million dollars, that’s a start,” Vice President Linda Hayes said. “As unfavorable as I am toward it, I’m going to vote yes.”