With layoffs looming, ASD tells principals to add 7th daily class period

Michelle Theriault Boots

Bracing for millions of dollars in expected budget cuts, Anchorage high school principals have been told by the school district to prepare a schedule for next year that would add an extra period to the school day, sending students to seven classes instead of six.

Cramming seven periods into the school day would cut the length of classes and add additional students per day for teachers to instruct and grade.

But it would also allow schools to do more with less in the face of anticipated large-scale teacher layoffs.

The budget for next year, which the ASD will release Jan. 21, includes about $23 million in cuts.

The school district needs to slash $49 million over the next two years.

Unless the district gets a surprise infusion of money from the Legislature, those cuts will translate into the loss of more than 200 positions, including classroom teachers, said ASD spokeswoman Heidi Embley.

District officials aren't saying exactly where the cuts are coming from or discussing the seven-period schedule before the budget is released so that staff members whose positions are being eliminated find out first, she said.

But school administrators have known that moving to a seven-period schedule was on the table as early as December, said East High principal Sam Spinella.

Last Thursday, high school principals met with top district secondary education officials, who told them to start formulating a master schedule for the 2014-2015 school year that added an extra class to the school day, said Cheryl Guyett, the principal of Dimond High School.

"'Get going on it,' was the advice," she said.

Guyett e-mailed the news to her staff and then met with her faculty Monday morning.

Teachers interviewed Monday said they were concerned about fitting lessons built into an already crowded curriculum into fewer minutes, along with burnout and an addition to the mountain of grading many already take home.

Having fewer educators teach more classes will allow students to return to school next year with the same course offerings available to them despite the layoffs, said Jacob Bera, Eagle River High School's lone art teacher, but at a cost to teachers.

"We all get the challenges," he said. "I think we understand why the Anchorage School District is doing this. From our perspective every teacher is going to have more kids on their workload. That's more kids competing for your time. Say you're an English teacher and grading essays -- now you've got 20 more to grade."

At East High, principal Sam Spinella said he had 65 teachers come to talk to him about the potential change on Monday.

Their concerns were similar to the Dimond High teachers: less time, more kids.

Because the start and end time of school wouldn't change, moving to a seven-period schedule would end up shaving about 30 minutes from each class over the course of a week, Guyett said.

But Spinella and Guyett both think the directive presents opportunities, too: Another class period during the day could mean more time for remedial work, flexibility in scheduling electives and even study hall.

If actual staff layoffs are modest, having every remaining teacher instructing an extra class could up the number of overall course offerings.

Fears that a 45-minute class wouldn't allow for science labs or other complex in-class activities might be answered by a block style schedule, in which students would attend longer classes a few days a week.

Several Anchorage schools, including East High, already use block scheduling.

A seven-period day is becoming standard in the Lower 48, Guyett said.

For now, Spinella is shooting down rumors (no, students will not need more credits to graduate because of the extra class period) and beginning the complex process of putting together a schedule that incorporates the seventh period.

He's optimistic.

"Yes, it means teachers are going to have to teach another class," he said. "Could it do something for us? I think it can. We don't really know unless we try it."

It's not yet clear how a proposed seven-period schedule and teacher layoffs might play out in middle schools, which already have seven classes a day but two planning periods for teachers.

Elementary schools would likely see larger class sizes, the district has said.

Until now, changes wrought by budget cuts have been an abstraction to many, said Andy Holleman, the head of the Anchorage Education Association, the union that represents ASD teachers.

"The thing everybody is going to have to remember is it's being driven by staff reductions," he said. "There's no way it's going to be pleasant."

At Eagle River High, art teacher Jacob Bera is on a team putting together the new schedule.

He wonders whether his popular ceramics class, which has a waiting list, will survive.

Right now, it's 53 minutes long.

"On our best day it takes 12-15 minutes to set up and 12-15 minutes to clean up," he said. "If you do the math, it's already a sprint to get any work time in there."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.