The start of another school year always brings changes – new teachers, new classes, and a new routine to learn. The State College Area School District is adding one more change into the mix after years of planning and assessment.
As students go back to school this fall, they are doing so on a new schedule that looks like this:
- Elementary schools, 8:10 a.m.-3 p.m.
- Middle schools, 8:40 a.m.-3:42 p.m.
- High school, 8:40 a.m.-3:40 p.m.
Elementary students will add 44 minutes onto the school day, while middle and high school students will begin classes 30 minutes later. The changes achieve two objectives for the district: creating more instructional time for elementary students and better accommodating the sleep schedules of tweens and teens.
Before the new schedule took effect, the district’s 6 hours and 6 minutes of elementary instruction ranked among the shortest school days in the state. At the secondary level, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools begin the day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow teens get at least eight hours of sleep per night.
Adjusting the school day is a big change and one that impacts every person in the district from students to teachers to bus drivers. It’s not something that was taken lightly. The district conducted surveys and focus groups and studied the research on best practices for teaching K-12 students.
The plan was first proposed to the school board in June 2017 and accepted in December 2017. Teachers, administrators, and other leaders have spent the past few months doing what they can to create a seamless transition for students.
Gail Romig teaches third grade at Radio Park Elementary. Under the old schedule, she was, as she describes it, “on stage pretty much every minute of the day.” Her 25-minute lunch breaks were often interrupted by colleagues coming to ask questions that they did not have time to ask at any other point during the day.
Some of the additional elementary instruction time will come in the form of classes known as “specials,” which include library, art, music, physical education, and a new offering on STEM education. These classes have their own instructors and take place in their own classrooms, which frees up time for Romig and her colleagues to work alone in their classrooms or have meetings.
“We’re all trying to do the best we can to meet the needs of our students,” Romig says. “But we need time to talk with colleagues. We can’t do this alone.”
Romig also hopes the new schedule will provide more time for teacher professional development. Teachers take part in professional learning communities where they discuss trends they’re seeing in student performance and review data from state assessments.
These meetings previously happened after school, but will now be incorporated into the school day while students are attending their specials.
“It will give us time to come together as a team,” Romig says. “We’ve all been working very hard and we hope that the extended school day will allow us to work smarter.”
The new schedule also includes additional classroom time for teachers to dive deeper into lessons or classroom discussions as they see fit.
“It gives kids more opportunities to share their thinking and engage in that productive struggle,” Romig says. “It also gives us more time to ask those deep questions instead of the clock determining how far a discussion will go.”
Parent-Teacher Organizations serve as a sounding board for the district and their members are seen as leaders within their respective schools. With a change as big as this, that input proved valuable to making sure that all points of view were being considered.
Terrill Salter, president of the Corl Street Elementary PTO, moved to State College from New Hampshire and says her previous district did not provide the level of attention that she saw in State College.
"A district representative came to one of our meetings and seemed to really listen to the PTO and hear what the parents’ concerns were,” Salter says. “I’m so happy to live in a district where they build new things, make changes as needed, and consider data when making decisions.”
The main concerns the PTO members raised were around homework and recess. Parents wanted to make sure the additional instructional time did not mean a decrease of recess time, or more homework to do each night after being in school for nearly an hour longer.
Salter served on the district’s homework committee, which provided input for the new K-5 homework policy that also goes into effect this year. Under the new policy, kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students will have 10 minutes of nightly reading. Third-graders will have no more than 30 minutes of homework per night; fourth- and fifth-graders will have no more than 40 minutes of homework per night.
“I appreciate that the district tries to make its decisions based on science rather than solely on people’s personal experiences,” Salter says. “I feel really happy with where the homework committee ended up, especially in regards to the early grades. Since he won't have homework, my first-grader will be able to play and run around outside after school.”
Personal opinions aside, PTO members also realize that the district weighs many factors in making a decision and it’s impossible to please everyone. State High PTO President Michelle Peffer says one point that’s often lost in the debate about the changing school schedule is the fact that SCASD has a reputation to maintain.
“One of the things that draws people to this area is that it consistently ranks as one of the best school districts in the state,” Peffer says. “It’s a selling point and one you need to be aware of if you want to stay competitive.”
Liz Sheaffer, vice president of the Mount Nittany Middle School PTO, has three boys who are in middle school and high school. She’s seen firsthand the impact early mornings have on them and says they’ll benefit from a little extra time to get up and moving in the morning.
“They’ll still get up at the same time; they’ll just walk out the door later,” Sheaffer says. “I think it’s going to be really beneficial in the long run.”
The changes to the SCASD schedule impact students who do not attend any of the district’s schools. The district provides transportation to Our Lady of Victory Catholic School, which is extending its day by 30 minutes to bring it in line with the district.
OLV serves kindergarten through eighth-grade, which means it will be impacted by the district’s changes at the elementary and secondary levels. Principal Samantha Weakland says the school’s staff learned about the change about a year-and-a-half ago and spent time during the last school year figuring out how to make the most of it.
Weakland says that, as of now, the school plans to use the extra time for STEM-related activities, with the goal of having a school-wide science fair or similar event at the end of the year. That could change based on how things go as the school year gets underway.
“We’re going to take this year to assess technology and see where that takes us,” she says. “We have to be able to re-evaluate the way we’re going and see if it’s working and not get ourselves tied into something that’s not right.”
Like Romig, Weakland hopes the additional time during the day will allow teachers to complete more of their planning work in school, rather than at home on evenings and weekends.
While the school district is legally required to provide transportation to OLV students and to high school students at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy (which is not impacted by the schedule change), Weakland says the district tries to be more than just a bus provider. The schools enjoy a good working relationship, Weakland says.
“We have families who have children in our building or St. Joe’s and in the school district, so we really try to be mindful of both schedules,” Weakland says.
The changes to the school schedule may also impact before- and after-school care for some families. The State College YMCA offers programming for about 50 students from 7-8 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.
Child Care Director Kayla Nardi says the Y works with the district to provide transportation to and from school and has room to accommodate more students if families find themselves in a tough spot with the new schedule.
Although starting later in the morning might be better for the physical and mental health of high school students, it can create some tough decisions for those who are trying to balance academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities.
To help with this juggling act, State High is expanding its offerings during “zero period,” which runs from 7:45-8:30 a.m., before the school day officially begins. An initial set of courses will be offered during this time, with a plan to add more in the coming years.
“We have always had a zero period for Wake Up State High and other courses,” says State High Principal Curtis Johnson “We’ve just expanded those options to meet the needs of our students with the new schedule.”
The district is also ramping up its online and hybrid course offerings and providing the laptops and tablets necessary for students to complete coursework on the way to games or other extracurricular activities.
“We’ve added several courses that include time with a teacher and time to work on a virtual program,” Johnson says. “Eventually, we’d like become a smorgasbord of opportunities for courses.”
This year’s schedule changes come on the heels of moving to the new high school building. Johnson says one of the challenges heading into the new school year was to make sure that students get to the right place at the right time.
To address that, the district has been sending print and email communications to students and parents and posting information on its student day website: scasd.org/Page/33203.
“My goal is to have 100 percent of students here on time. That would be a great way to start the year with the later start time,” Johnson says.”
Jenna Spinelle is a freelance writer and journalism instructor in State College.