Longer Classes, but Fewer of Them
To improve learning, a Massachusetts high school tries a controversial restructuring plan. `RENAISSANCE PROGRAM'
TOPSFIELD, MASS. — IN the middle of a 10th-grade science class here in the mammoth school building of Masconomet Regional High School, the sound of a bell echoes through the long, wide halls. But the shuffle of books and hurried finish that usually follows such a sound doesn't come. In fact, none of the students seems to notice the bell. ``That's not for us,'' explains student Jon Rand when a visitor asks. ``That's for the traditional program.''
Jon and his classmates are in the ``Renaissance Program,'' a controversial pilot project in which students take two ``macroclasses'' a day for two hours each.
Launched in the fall of 1988, the project originally included only ninth-graders. Last January, despite political and financial pressure, the school board voted 8 to 3 to continue the program this fall and to expand it to include 10th-graders. Thirty incoming ninth-graders joined the program, along with about 75 10th-graders, most of whom had participated as ninth-graders.
But on Oct. 3, the school board voted 9 to 2 to discontinue the project after this year.
The program became a ``political football,'' according to Joseph M. Carroll, superintendent of the Masconomet Regional School District and originator of the project.
Grounded in the principles outlined in Mr. Carroll's book, ``The Copernican Plan,'' the program calls for a radical restructuring of the traditional high school schedule. His plan is based on the premise that better student-teacher relationships, improved teaching, and smaller classes can all be achieved through a more efficient use of school time.
``The change in schedule is not an end,'' Carroll explains, ``It is a means to an end. That end is to change the fundamental relationship between the teacher and the student.''
Masconomet, a regional junior and senior high school in a relatively affluent district, is regarded as one of the better schools in the region. About 85 percent of the graduates attend college. Critics have objected to trying to ``fix'' a school that isn't ``broken.'' But, Carroll argues, there's no reason not to make good schools better.
After designing successful summer remedial programs featuring fewer subjects taught in longer class periods, Carroll began to wonder if such a system might be effective for the regular school year. The High School in the Community, a public magnet school in New Haven, Conn., and several independent schools have made use of extended classes with favorable results.
The typical American high school student attends six or seven 45 to 50 minute classes a day. If you add homeroom and lunch, these young people are changing rooms about nine times in a six- or seven-hour day - and changing clothes twice, if they have physical education. Such a frenetic schedule only exacerbates the hyperactivity and short attention span so often associated with teenagers, Carroll says.
Most high school teachers labor under the same kind of exhausting rotation schedules. They usually teach five classes each day with about 25 students each, seeing about 125 students a day.
``I felt like the Hebrews in the desert, wandering from place to place,'' says social studies teacher Donald A. Doliber of the traditional schedule of 45-minute classes often held in different rooms.
UNDER the Renaissance Program, known as RenPro at the school, students take two 118-minute classes each trimester and study only two subjects for 60 days at a time. They join their classmates in the traditional program (TradPro) for the last two periods, when they take an elective and physical education.
Teachers in the Renaissance Program teach six classes each year rather than five under the traditional program. Class size is significantly reduced - an average of 13 students per class versus 20 in the traditional classes.
The superintendent recognizes the concerns voiced by some teachers. ``When you ask people to make a fundamental change in the way they teach,'' Carroll says, ``what you are really saying to people who have worked 20 years in a certain format is that their way is not as good.''
In the fall of 1989 when Carroll launched the pilot project, he asked ninth-grade students to volunteer to participate. Likewise, all participating teachers were volunteers. About half of the ninth-grade class - some 80 students - joined the Renaissance Program.
Despite some difficulties in implementation, an outside team of researchers from Harvard University gave the first year of the pilot project a favorable evaluation. The two programs use the same curriculum, which allows for comparison.
The final report of the Harvard evaluation team states that by the end of last school year, the RenPro students ``were performing academically at or above the performances of students in the Traditional program on a majority of academic comparisons.''
But critics voice concern about whether students will be able to retain the knowledge gained after taking a course for only 60 days. In addition, they argue, it is possible for a year or more to elapse between courses in the same subject.
Early this fall, 11 10th-graders elected to drop out of RenPro and return to traditional classes. ``That's concerning us a little bit,'' Carroll says.
Instituting ``a school within a school'' often leads to divisiveness, and some RenPro students complain about never seeing their friends in the traditional program anymore. In addition, some students think the change from 100-minute classes to 118-minute classes this fall is pushing things too far. ``It seems a lot longer now,'' one student says.
In the face of statewide cutbacks, some critics charge that the district cannot afford an experimental program. Some parents of students in the traditional program, particularly parents of honors students, view the effort as a threat to existing programs.
A budget shortfall forced some changes in the second year of the project. Carroll had to find outside financing just to keep the program afloat. He managed to get a foundation grant of $62,000 and parents of RenPro students rallied to raise an additional $30,000. But that was not enough to pay for the seminar portion of the program, which has been discontinued.
Budget constraints have also forced teachers who taught only in RenPro last year to take on some TradPro classes as well. This is proving difficult, they say.
Nonetheless, RenPro students and teachers are generally enthusiastic about the experiment. Students ``seem to get to know teachers better,'' student Jon Rand says. That makes it ``easier to ask questions,'' he adds.
``You can really concentrate,'' comments 10th-grader Peter Renell about the two-hour courses, and ``you can see how it all fits together.''
Teachers rave about being able to dig into a subject and make connections that would never be possible in 45 minutes. In traditional classes, once you take attendance and handle homework, says Mr. Doliber, who teaches social studies, there are only about 22 minutes left.
Teachers find that they are forced to change their teaching style to accommodate the longer classes. ``You learn one thing,'' Doliber says, ``you can't talk the entire time.''
English teacher Lee Thomas finds his students more focused under the RenPro system. ``Rather than coming to me thinking about French the next period, they come to me thinking about English,'' he says, adding that students are generally more prepared for class as well.
But the process of implementing a new program in an existing school is pitted with potholes. ``It would be nice if this was utopia,'' math teacher Jack Paarlberg says, ``but it's not yet.''
``The real problem in terms of changing or restructuring American education is to get existing high schools to make changes,'' Superintendent Carroll says. He has received inquiries about the plan from more than 100 schools in 33 states and four countries. ``Somewhere along the line,'' he says, ``something like this will happen.''