By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009
They sound like workout sessions at a gym, but "flex periods" are fast becoming a scheduling strategy among Northern Virginia high schools that want to offer students remediation or enrichment during the school day rather than before or after classes.
High schools in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties have been inserting these chunks of time -- from 40 to 90 minutes, depending on the school -- for several years, often to reduce after-school tutoring costs but also to raise achievement in the era of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The program varies among schools, but the premise is similar: Between regular courses, students are assigned to a flex classroom to review material or work independently. Flex time can also be used for attending schoolwide events. And if a student needs help from a teacher in another part of the building, he or she can get a pass and visit the teacher during flex time.
Students at Stonewall Jackson High School near Manassas are in the second year of a flex program. Reactions have been mixed: Some students interviewed said the periods help them catch up on homework or review tough lessons with teachers, but others said the time is often exploited by students prone to goofing off or leaving school property. Schools are trying to crack down on the latter.
Annandale High School has used flex periods since the late 1990s. Principal John Ponton said the program is crucial for low-income students who hold after-school jobs and need extra help with schoolwork. This year, Annandale instituted guidelines requiring students and teachers to make arrangements via e-mail, 24 hours in advance, if a student wants to "flex out" of his or her assigned flex classroom to see a teacher for help.
"Some kids were just roaming around the building before, and they never got to the intended class," Ponton said. "There was too much traffic in the hallway."
Stonewall Principal Richard Nichols said the success of the program might help reduce budget costs.
"We offer tutoring two days a week after school in four core subject areas, for around $20,000 a year," Nichols said. "If we have to cut back next year on tutoring, we will at least have this program built in to support the kids."
Mel Riddile, an associate director at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he has noticed flex periods surfacing in schools nationwide in the past five to six years. Such periods have largely replaced study halls, which, he said, might have become largely extinct in the 1990s because their loose structures resulted in the loss of a lot precious academic time.
"People came to realize we needed to make the most of every minute," he said. "This is a big issue with student achievement. Some students need more time and don't learn at the same rate."
Some Stonewall Jackson students said it was sometimes hard to get approval from their assigned flex teacher to seek help in another course from another teacher. Others said they were grateful for the breather during the day.
A survey of Stonewall Jackson teachers indicated that staff members prefer the new system, with about 84 percent of teachers saying they agree that the program helps students learn. The majority of students also supported the program, but not to the same degree: About 70 percent of students said they think flex time helps them learn.
Stonewall Jackson senior Madison Whitehead, 17, said the program has given her more time to catch up on her English reading assignments. "I'm more focused at school than at home," she said. "Most of the time, I use flex to catch up."