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Semester Switch

4J high schools will run on a different — and controversial — schedule next year

An announcement that all 4J high schools will be moving to a new semester schedule in September 2023 has been met with trepidation by many parents and teachers. The goals of the change include improving the educational experience of marginalized students, but the process is moving quickly, and parents and teachers have questions over how well it will work.

Currently, 4J high schools operate on a three trimester, five class-per-day schedule. Next year’s semesters will have an A/B/C day schedule, with four classes on A days and four classes on B days, or eight classes total. C days will consist of shorter, more flexible periods each Wednesday, allowing for students who need additional support to receive academic interventions, as well as for students to attend affinity groups, which include groups like the Black Student Union or Latino Student Union. 

This schedule is in part designed to prioritize flexibility so that students can receive this kind of support, according to the 4J School District. 

On the current trimester schedule, affinity groups meet at lunchtime, says 4J Superintendent Andy Dey. If kids are buying lunch at school, he says they only get about 15 minutes in the group before the period is over. With the introduction of C days, some affinity groups will meet during the school day itself — though some will still meet during lunch, which has been elongated to accommodate this. 

Additionally, Dey says students will be able to take more classes and electives. He says this will particularly aid students who need additional support, like an English language development course, but who might not have previously had room for an elective class.

Finally, he says students tend to “hit the panic button” and disengage when they feel behind on a more truncated, three-term schedule, but with a semester schedule, they will have more time and flexibility. 

Throughout the 4J school district, however, parents and teachers are concerned about this upcoming schedule change. 

One 4J teacher, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about their job, points out that the new schedule brings students from seeing their teachers five times a week to three. They say marginalized students, who already struggle with attendance on a five-day schedule, will likely not make all three — the teacher worries about only seeing those students once or twice a week on the new schedule.

Maile Urbancic, a mother of three with one child currently enrolled in a 4J high school and one recently graduated, finds the potential for chaos concerning, especially considering what students have been through the last three years.

“You look at the students that are going to be high school seniors this year; things have changed every single year for them,” Urbancic says. “Why do we have to do this right now? Why can’t we give them another year of stability?”

Urbancic is also worried about how a change in instructional hours could affect Advanced Placement (AP) classes. But she says speaking with teachers is what worries her the most.

“I’m not an expert, you know, I’m just a parent,” Urbancic says. “But when the educators, who are the experts, are up in arms about it, and they’re saying that the district is not listening to them, that’s what really raises a lot of red flags for me.”

Lodi Soderholm, a math teacher at Churchill High School who has been a part of 4J since 2001, raised her concerns at the 4J School Board meeting on May 3. 

The school board does not typically vote on day-to-day operations such as the schedule change, instead focusing on the master calendar, which determines when school starts for the year and when breaks happen, but they have been receiving updates on the new schedule as the year progresses. 

At the board meeting, Soderholm echoed Urbancic’s concerns about creating more changes for students already experiencing multiple years of discontinuity. Additionally, she said that as subcommittees continue to identify challenges with the new schedules’ implementation, more time is needed to work out solutions. 

“My request is to take a pause for one year before moving forward with this change,” Soderholm said at the meeting. “There is no crisis here that would mandate an immediate shift. Give us the opportunity to build on the work that has been started, and to do it with fidelity and integrity.”

In response to concerns about time, Dey says there have been annual conversations about moving away from a three-term, five-class schedule, and that for the last 12 to 15 years, district leaders have made a few attempts to begin formal conversations with school administrations, staff and students about making a change, and it just has not happened. 

“There’s never a great time to change the schedule,” Dey says. “But to delay changing something that we know is insufficient and falls short of meeting students’ needs — to delay that because of real concerns about inconvenience and unfamiliarity — delaying is not warranted.”

Dey says that between now and September, the remainder of the process looks like conversations with teachers and administration to figure out what training and professional development is necessary moving forward, as well as figuring out what time teachers need “protected over the course of the year, so that they can really devote the bulk of their cognitive bandwidth to figuring out how to optimize all aspects of the new schedule.” 

In an email to Eugene Weekly, Soderholm says that currently, with just weeks remaining in the school year, there is “little to no time to prepare for next year, especially since we are also, currently, trying to end this year strong.”

On top of working with teachers, Dey says district leadership will also be having conversations with students and parents who have concerns. Additionally, community members can submit specific comments and questions about the schedule on the “Let’s Talk” page of 4J’s website.

“We’re not on the tip of the spear here,” Dey says. “There are schools across the state and across the country that have a schedule like this that have very good performance on AP tests and are very successful in their pursuit of the IB [International Baccalaureate] diploma.” 

While Urbancic says she thinks it’s entirely possible that a different schedule would be better than the current one, she is not convinced that this one will fix the problems that it is intended to, nor that it is ready for implementation next school year. She, along with others in the 4J community, aren’t ready to let this go. 

“We’d like the district to pause implementing the new schedule for another year, and to take the time to do this right,” Urbancic says. “To implement changes incrementally, to allow high schools to adjust the schedule, within reason, to meet the needs of their students and their student population, and to adhere to evidence-based best practices.”

This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University Of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit CatalystJournalism.uoregon.edu or follow on Twitter @uo_catalyst.

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