Trimesters or semesters? Ann Arbor officials consider Skyline High School's structure
Daniel Brenner | AnnArbor.com file photo
Skyline — complete with its magnet programs, trimester schedule and mastery learning concepts — opened its doors in 2008. While the school was constructed to relieve overcrowding at Ann Arbor Huron and Pioneer high schools, its innovative teaching and learning models were touted as the key to developing competitive students with 21st century educations.
But now, as central administration and the Board of Education begin to explore potential budget reductions for the 2013-14 academic year, Skyline’s teaching and learning models are being called into question.
In particular, board members want to see evidence of the trimester schedule working — or not working, said Vice President Christine Stead, who brought up the topic at Wednesday’s regular board meeting. She had hoped to place the topic on an upcoming board agenda to let people know when the district would be talking about the trimester concept again.
“I think there’s an active community (at Skyline) that wants to transition to semesters,” she said. “But I’m wondering if there’s an active community that feels otherwise.”
AAPS faces an estimated $17 million budget shortfall for the 2013-14 academic year. And in December, at the board’s request, the district released a preliminary list of possible budget reductions, which included switching Skyline's trimester calendar to a semester calendar.
No formal recommendations on the initial items and estimates presented in December have been made yet.
On the trimester topic, Stead would like to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on what their Skyline experiences have been and what they think is best for students, she said.
Parents have complained about their students’ light academic schedules; inability to take Advanced Placement and other specialty courses, due to fewer teachers and the three-marking period schedule; as well as lengthy gaps in learning in core subjects, such as math and science, from having a second semester course one year to not having the core subject again until fall, or first semester, of the subsequent school year.
“I think we need to be surveying parents to understand what additional tutoring they feel compelled to provide versus the other comprehensive high schools in order to bridge something like a nine-month gap for math and science, especially when they’re trying to prepare for the ACT,” Stead said. “This will give us a sense for is this model working, or isn’t it? And what else do families have to do for their child to be successful in that model?”
Superintendent Patricia Green said at Wednesday’s regular board meeting that administrators intend to bring the topic of Skyline’s trimesters back before the board in February. Green said if a decision on trimesters is made in February, the district still would have time to start a semester schedule at the high school by September.
But Stead and trustees Susan Baskett and Simone Lightfoot wanted to secure a date and moved to place the topic of trimesters formally on the board’s agenda. However, the motion failed 3-4.
Board Treasurer Glenn Nelson said he wants the administration to take the lead on this and to bring the issue back to the board when they are ready and have ample data and information gathered.
“My concern is putting it on the agenda prematurely,” he said. “I do want the opinion of expert educators on what makes sense and the rationale for that. But I want it to start with our professional team, rather than start as a grassroots political issue.”
Nelson also said Skyline’s trimester calendar was not chosen haphazardly.
But Stead is more interested in discussing the trimester model in practice at Skyline.
“I’m less interested in the theory behind what’s possible, because we have what’s happening at Skyline right now. And to delve back into the academic theory of trimesters versus semesters at that level isn’t helpful,” Stead said. “We have a reality of how it’s been working, regardless of however it was theorized and planned to be. That we can study and look at the data for. And it’s that data, our experience and our children’s experience, that will be more meaningful.”
Stead said she would hate for it to be the case that the district was unable to make a decision in time for next fall.
“I heard what I feel is a satisfactory reassurance from Dr. Green that this will be brought forward in a timely manner. So I would not support a board-imposed deadline,” Nelson said, and Trustee Andy Thomas concurred.
Green said it is not the administration’s intention to study Skyline’s trimester schedule into next year. She added, however, she did not want to speak for Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Alesia Flye, who is leading a committee that’s looking at many facets of the high school experience in Ann Arbor.
Flye was out ill and could not attend Wednesday’s meeting, so Green said she was not comfortable giving a precise timeline for the administration’s recommendation, approval or implementation yet, as the topic is still being studied.
“I haven’t gotten a final report from them. Everything on that committee was being explored,” she said.
Green said she does not know what the impact of switching to a semester calendar would be on courses, adding it would warrant the involvement and input of the high school counselors. She stressed the administration is aware of the tight timeframe and recognized the registration process for next year’s classes starts soon for high schoolers.
Green also has heard concerns from Skyline parents about the scheduling difficulties and limited options the trimester calendar has yielded, she said.
“It troubles me we have to say no to our young people when they want the option to take another course,” she added.
Switching Skyline High School’s schedule from trimesters to semesters could allow the district to reduce Skyline’s instructional staff by about three teachers.
In December, Flye said there are pros and cons to both the trimester and semester models. But it is difficult, in some aspects, running a school district on two different structures, she said.
A committee of 14 people from AAPS was established to look at start times and other aspects of the high school experience in Ann Arbor. Out of this committee stemmed several possible next steps, one of which was moving all of the comprehensive high schools to a semester schedule.
In general, according to a committee report, students at Skyline have five class-period days with 72-minute periods. However, in many cases, students take two or three courses every 60 days to earn six to nine credits per year.
At Huron and Pioneer, students have six class-period days with 56-minute classes. These two comprehensive high schools also have a seventh-hour option for students.
District officials said students must take six classes to be considered a full-time student under the semester schedule. As of Fall Count Day 2012, 335 students or 20.3 percent of the population at Pioneer took advantage of the seventh-hour option. At Huron, 220 or 13.6 percent of the population did.
Officials said the total cost to offer the seventh-hour program is 4.44 teachers or approximately a little more than $400,000.
Stead said in December that Skyline had its first graduating class in 2012 and thus, by now, the district should be able to say without a doubt whether the trimester schedule has been successful in terms of student achievement, attendance and engagement as well as teacher satisfaction.
Flye said at the December meeting, one of the benefits she has heard of the trimester model is teachers see fewer students during the day, giving them more time for individualized instruction. Teachers also have an extended time for planning and students have more time for reflection and less information to process during the course of a single school day, she said.
Some disadvantages the district highlighted are three sets of final exams for students, greater difficultly building teacher-student relationships, year-long AP or music courses that can reduce choices available to students, and more stress for students due to the frequent schedule and lunch period changes.