Dear Extra Credit:
Why did Montgomery County public schools publicly advertise and recruit teachers, parents and students to choose the newly reopened Northwood High School (one of five high schools in the Downcounty Consortium "choice" program) with the promise that they would be a part of a pilot program to test a college-style curriculum (4x4 block schedule) that allows students to take four complete courses during each half of the year, only to suddenly announce that this pilot would be discontinued at the end of the school year, regardless of the results of this pilot on the performance of the students?
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and Eric Brenner
Northwood High School
It is a very good question. And in a Jan. 5 memo responding to parental complaints like yours, schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast does not entirely solve the mystery of this jarring turnabout.
Block scheduling -- which doubles the length of a typical high school class period to 90 minutes -- is as fashionable as iPods these days. It is based on a theory that the longer period allows teachers to present material in more depth. The 4x4 schedule that drew so many families to Northwood is a particularly daring version of the class schedule realignment.
In Fairfax County, all high schools have block schedules, but they typically maintain the old system of year-long courses still taking a year. Instead of the old system of meeting every day for 45 minutes, a block system geometry class meets every other day for 90 minutes, but students still juggle the same seven or eight courses at a time they usually do in the academically intense Washington suburbs.
Northwood, which had been closed for several years but reopened last fall, not only increased the length of each class period for its ninth-graders but accelerated the course schedule. Students saw their geometry teacher for 90 minutes nearly every day of the week and were done with that course by the middle of the year. Some parents and students liked this intensity and felt it was better to concentrate on just four courses at a time this way, switching to another four courses in a similarly intensive way in the second semester.
But Weast said this plan was never approved by his office, and it went ahead despite opposition from the office of curriculum and instructional programs and the office of global access technology. "It is not known why this occurred, given the availability of other preferred block schedules that are already being used in some county high schools," Weast said.
My long experience covering bureaucratic maneuvers in China has led me to conclude that whenever an explanation lapses into the vague passive voice -- the Chinese love the phrase "bu tai qingchu," meaning "it is not very clear" -- the people involved would prefer not to divulge the messy details. The Northwood parents suspect the unexplained disappearance of the previous community superintendent for their part of the county might have something to do with it, and they may be right.
But Weast presents a reasonable case for switching Northwood to the more common block system that keeps the old course schedule while increasing class period time. He said a student transferring into or out of Northwood in the middle of the year would have found it very difficult to adjust. Coming in, that student would be only halfway through geometry and either have to start at the beginning in Northwood's second semester or wait until the next school year. Going to another school, he would have to sit in a normal geometry class studying the ceiling tiles while the rest of the class caught up with him.
You are right to be upset that no one communicated this problem to you or sought your input. And you are right to hope that this does not hurt the standing of the new Northwood principal, Henry Johnson. He was a star in Fairfax County, not only because he understood teaching and teenagers very well, but because he was one of the best singers ever to sit in a principal's chair.