Education expert pans Hauser class schedule

Too many electives, not enough core learning, says consultant

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By Bob Skolnik

Contributing Reporter

A consultant hired by the Riverside Elementary School District 96 delivered a scathing critique of the class schedule at L.J. Hauser Junior High School last month at a meeting of the Education Committee of the District 96 school board.

Gary Soto, the president of California-based Action Learning Systems, said Hauser students take too many elective classes and that Hauser's 40-minute class periods are too short. 

As a result, Hauser students do not get enough instruction in core academic subjects, Soto told the school board in February. 

"There are nine periods," Soto said. "In my work with thousands and thousands of middle schools and secondary schools, it's unheard of, unless I start at 8 and end at 5 and my periods are an hour long. It would be kind of cool to have an extended day, but 40 minutes, my gosh." 

Action Learning Systems was hired this year to help District 96 transition to the new Common Core standards being implemented state wide. Soto and Action Learning Systems Senior Vice President Bob Crowe have visited the district and worked directly with teachers instructing them how to teach the Common Core. 

Soto told the school said Hauser the number of elective classes Hauser students take needs to be reduced so that more time can be spent on core subjects. Some teachers expressed a fear that elective such as music might face cuts.

"No electives aren't going to go, but if you're giving the kids four periods or three periods of electives, you might see it cut down to two or one, because the bottom line is that you've got to prepare them for the Common Core," Soto said.

Since switching to the middle-school model in the 2007-08 school year Hauser has had a schedule of nine 40-minute periods and one 30-minute advisory period each day.  In the middle-school model, the advisory period is supposed to be where students build a close relationship with one teacher and classmates. In practice, it is often a period where students do homework.

Soto said he thinks advisory periods are a waste of time. 

"I've never seen an advisory that works," said Soto, a former elementary and secondary school principal who was worked in education for 37 years. "A lot of middle school people out there will say 'Oh we need advisory because advisory helps our kids and we love our kids.' I say love them every period. Love them in curriculum; love them in assessment, love them in expectations. You don't need a period to love them."

Soto's dismissive view of the advisory period received some push back from a parent in the audience, Mary Lang Judy, and from school board member David Kodama.

"There's a lot of rationale why we have advisory," Kodama said. "It helps, certainly, with students, with a portion of the student population. It really is critical for them."

But Soto suggested that Hauser teachers gave him negative reviews of the advisory period.

"I would also ask your teachers about their success with advisory, because we met with the staff and they were very verbal about it," Soto said. 

The typical Hauser student currently takes five core academic classes a trimester. Seventh- and eighth-graders also choose from a wide range of electives, called Encore classes at Hauser. 

Encore classes are usually a trimester long and cover a wide range of subjects including environmental sustainability, drama, global studies, designing spaces, sculpture and vocal techniques to name a few. Former Hauser Principal Leslie Berman was a big supporter of the Encore classes.

School board member Art Perry said he believes the school board and administration need to seriously consider Soto's suggestions.

"I think these things should be on the table, in my opinion," said Perry. "I think the schedule should be on the table."

Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis was non-committal when asked whether there would be changes to the Hauser schedule
next year.

In an emailed statement to the Landmark from both her and Director of Academic Excellence Brian Ganan, Sharma-Lewis said administrators were re-evaluating the entire district curriculum to make sure it aligns with the Common Core. 

The superintendent suggested that District 96 was late in addressing the switch to Common Core and said administrators were working feverishly to bring the district up to speed. 

"Given the fact that the district has not focused on these standards until this school year, we are operating at an accelerated pace," the statement read. "In order to prepare our students for college and career readiness and compete in a global work place additional time, increased rigor and relevance needs to be a priority in all of our classrooms."

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Peter Schueler from Riverside, Illinois  

Posted: March 28th, 2014 12:07 PM

Ralph, could not agree more but there seems to be a historic lack of an active working relationship (shared best practices, tools, resources) between D 96 & D 208 in spite of the fact that Hauser is basically the RBHS prep school (which is great!). The 'pro' advisory support could be a parent who needs a high degree of one on one yet represents a small (but important) percentage of the student population which I am sure will not be forgotten about or dismissed in any way. I had a son there and a daughter current and they both use(d) it for 'homework'. Like anything it may actually serve some of the students some of the time with its (historic) intended purpose, but times change. It's value (Advisory) has to be weighed as a 'want' or 'need', using input of professional teachers and administrators first. Common Core is a mandate and D 96 is a year behind in it's implementation, this should be the most important theme: CHANGE. Common Core inherently lends itself to streamlining, creating efficiencies, and expanding efficacy in learning the 4 essentials (STEM). Parents also seek specialized schools when they don't think the current educational systems will challenge their child student effectively. I think that CC can narrow that choice for parents who don't feel public schools under current instructional practices will meet them. It is here - accept it for what it is: Mandatory Change and a new effective way to get students to learn these essentials - as well as the professional teachers to learn (ongoing) better methods themselves.

Ralph Culloden from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 26th, 2014 1:30 PM

It might be a wise idea to bring in some of the RBHS staff as well, since I'm sure they have gotten a sense of the success/not of the present system as the kids transition over. Their feedback should be integrated into any decision.

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