By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Teachers in the local school district are marching in lockstep with a request to switch the high school block schedule currently in use, to a seven-period day.

The school board on May 8 heard a presentation from K-12 guidance counselor Leah Johnson and 9-12 math and science teacher Nancy Sheil, pointing out the advantages of the switch based on current educational research.

Sheil explained that a seven-period day leads to greater student achievement due to a number of factors, namely added instructional time; increased student engagement because of shorter, more regular classes; more regular teacher check-ins and assessment of students; increased practice and exposure to content; and decreased impact of schedule disruptions.

Currently, students attend four classes a day, every other day, allowing a total of eight classes per semester. The seven-period schedule would remove the eighth class, but give more time per course in a year, making it easier for teachers to meet their state-mandated requirements for instructional time, which is 135 hours for one high school credit.

The switch to seven periods will add close to 900 minutes per class, based on a 50-minute class period, Sheil said.

“That’s significant, face-to-face time, building relationships,” Johnson said.

Sheil cited research on student engagement from the University of Mississippi, stating that an adolescent’s attention span is typically 2-3 minutes per year of age, so shorter classes will keep kids engaged at peak levels.

“In math, at the end of an hour, their brains are kind of worked from trying to understand all this new information,” Sheil said of her own experience teaching 90-minute classes.

Alongside the proposed schedule switch, Big Sky School District Supt. Jerry House has proposed a calendar of 175.5 school days for next year – down from 178.5 this year.

For the block schedule to work with updated state requirements, the school would need to increase the number of school days to 180 days per year, or increase minutes per class from 90 to 96, Johnson said.

Many students aren’t so sure about the change, said Laura Michel, vice chair of the board and a mother of two high school students at the school.

“It’s not about the data,” she said. “They want to know about how it’s going to affect their lives.”

For example, she said many students in the current junior class have taken an extra course load to set themselves up for free time or internships next year.

“I like the block scheduling for the eight classes because you get more credits and that looks better for college,” said junior Gabrielle Gasser (also a current intern at Explore Big Sky).

Other students worry there will be double the homework load, Michel said.

The teachers have discussed this, Sheil said, and they feel additional class time will allow them to break homework into smaller pieces.

Plus, she said, it would allow teachers to give students daily feedback on their homework, making sure their time is spent effectively.

“I was not initially in favor of this, [but] I think you have to admit when you’re wrong,” said board chair Loren Bough. “The best schedule for a school is the one that works best. I got a very strong message from all the staff on these points. The more hours on the specific subject was something I hadn’t thought about.”

“We want to take public input, parent input, student input,” Bough added.

The board tabled approval of the schedule and next year’s calendar until its May 21 meeting.

Also at that meeting, Maggie Luchini was sworn in to the board, taking Ty Moline’s seat. Luchini, who previously served a two-year term on the board from 2010-12, ran unopposed for the three-year term. Moline’s term had expired and he did not run for re-election.