Increasing instructional minutes for English Language Arts (ELA) and math is a top priority, as DeForest Area School District officials look to establish core programming for the new intermediate school.

“It’s kind of like setting fence posts,” said Roy Bernards, the intermediate school principal. “We know what we’re about, we know what we need to do, so let’s do it.”

Due to open in the fall of 2021, the new intermediate school will serve students in grades 4-6. Bernards and Director of Instructional Services Rebecca Toetz presented an update on scheduling and programming for the school at the Monday, Jan. 13 school board meeting.

Along with adding time for ELA and math, school officials want to reduce transitions for students and staff between classes. The moves are meant to help “meet kids where they are” academically, socially and emotionally.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to do that,” said Bernards.

Superintendent Eric Runez added, “It’s the right time for us to start looking at this.”

In researching the matter over the summer, a task force reviewed schedules and programming from several different school districts, including Oregon, Middleton, Milton, Pewaukee, McFarland, Little Chute and McFarland. They also made site visits to Waunakee, Pewaukee and Sussex to check out how intermediate schools in those communities operate. Teachers did go along on the visits.

“What we learned from other schools is that they’re trying to maximize time and minimize transitions,” said Toetz.

They identified several features they liked, including the progression from self-contained classrooms to departmentalized two-person teams. Having two recesses with one combined with lunch was another, although another possibility would be one recess with a longer lunch/recess block, such as McFarland’s, which lasts 55 minutes.

Others included language offerings, dedicated response to intervention (RTI) time to support students with learning and behavior needs, shared planning time with teams, and a variety of encore classes such as art, music, languages and health, to name a few.

While on site visits, DeForest officials noted some similarities and attractive features, including two-person teams, schedules that honor science and social studies, later school start times, one-to-one technology, one recess combined with lunch, less transitions, two encore classes per day and a “Great Start” at the beginning of the year, which took place at both Pewaukee and Sussex.

Bernards and Toetz gave a number of recommendations, including a switch to two-person teaching teams for the 180-day school year for grades four, five and six. Bernards said the biggest change would affect fourth grade, with one instructor teaching a 120-minute ELA block and the other teaching a 120-block on math and social science. The two teachers would share approximately 50 students and each would teach two 120-minute blocks. The result: more time for social science, going from 5,400 minutes currently to 9,000 minutes with the subject being taught 50 minutes per day. ELA time would actually drop slightly, from 23,400 minutes currently to 21,600. At 70 minutes per day, math time would remain the same, with 12,600 minutes.

For fifth grade, the two-person team arrangement would be the same; however, under this model, fifth grade time for ELA instruction would increase from 16,200 minutes to 21,600, with math instructional minutes rising from 8,100 minutes to 12,600. There would be 50 minutes per day allotted for social science for 9,000 minutes, 45 minutes for social studies and 45 for science. It was explained that social science encompasses both science and social studies. An example cited: ecology. While time for social science would increase, the minutes for science and social studies individually would drop from 8,100 to 4,500 for both. When combined under the banner of social sciences, however, the result would be 9,000 minutes.

Bernards said the science piece for fifth grade was an area where there would be pushback. That’s an area where more research into science standards is necessary to see if there are duplications elsewhere. It’s possible some of those standards may be taught in grades below or above fifth grade. As far as the ELA block goes, Bernards mentioned the need for more word work – spellings, vocabulary, etc. – at the fifth grade level.

The team teaching for sixth grade is expected to be different, with one instructor teaching a 120-minute block of ELA and social studies and the other teaching math and science for the same time period. Again, each teacher would teach two 120-minute blocks and they would share about 50 students.

In combining science and social studies, Toetz said that’s designed to help sixth grade students get ready for middle school.

The proposed changes create an 80-minute block for ELA, a 45-minute segment for social studies, 70 minutes of math and 45 minutes for science. While total minutes for ELA would drop from 16,200 currently to 14,400, math and science would increase from 8,100 to 12,600 minutes and 8,100 to 9,000, respectively.

Bernards said the goal with the blocks is more integration.

For example, if the ELA/social studies block is studying the Revolutionary War, the class might study related vocabulary, so that the subjects overlap. Combining the two is similar to the Waunakee model.

Bernards also said the blocks need to be fluid to “meet the needs of our kids.” For example, if a math class needs to go longer than 70 minutes, that’s okay, according to Bernards.

Literacy and numeracy were key areas where school officials are looking for improvement, according to Bernards.

To prepare teachers for the changes, more professional development is necessary, according to Bernards. The work is starting already.

School Board Vice President Steve Tenpas liked how the recommendations were all explained.

“It gives us a good appreciation for how valuable the minutes are,” said Tenpas.

Bernards described the dialog among task force members regarding the recommendations as “robust.” He added, “One of the biggest takeaways was that we’re all going to be a little uncomfortable.”

At the same time, Toetz said there was a good understanding of what the changes could look like, as the increased time in different areas could allow teachers more opportunity to check for understanding instruction among their students. Toetz said teachers left site visits with a lot of energy and a sense “that we could do this.”

Toetz also said that in the blocks, teachers would not be lecturing for more than 10-15 minutes on a particular topic, allowing them to work more directly with students as they practice the material the rest of the time.

Such scheduling changes may be considered for other grades at some point, including seventh and eighth grade.

Ambassador Linda Leonhart asked about the implications for special education students.

Bernards said special education teachers were part of the task force. The feedback he received from them indicated they feel it will be easier to deliver specialized instruction under these models.

Regarding school start times, Runez said there is conversation happening between the different facilities on the issue.

There will be an overview of the intermediate school on Jan. 20.

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