Arlington County parent Ryan Donmoyer has two children at Williamsburg Middle School, one of the most affluent and high-performing public schools in Northern Virginia. Families are usually happy with such a favored place, but Donmoyer and several other parents are objecting to a planned block class schedule with no proven learning benefits.
Usually such protests fail after a few heated meetings and angry letters to the school board, particularly if the principal and the superintendent support the change, as they do for Williamsburg.
But Donmoyer, a former journalist, is using a reporter’s tool, freedom of information rules, to expose misinformation and secret maneuvering in adopting the plan for every-other-day 83-minute classes at Williamsburg. Arlington has a long tradition of good government and citizen review, so the school system gave Donmoyer more than 300 emails to and from staffers on the controversy.
Such family vs. school battles rarely get much coverage. News organizations consider them too local, even though they reveal important truths about what most aggravates parents. The email copies Donmoyer collected show how school politics really works.
Arlington schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos told me that Superintendent Patrick Murphy, who thinks block scheduling would deepen learning for middle-schoolers and reduce time spent changing classes, left it up to principals “to explore options with their communities.” But emails indicate that Williamsburg Principal Gordon Laurie did not say the school could stay with the traditional schedule. Instead he asked staffers which kind of block schedule they preferred.
Laurie says he wants each student to have just one traditional 45-minute class that meets daily. A student’s other classes would be one for 45 minutes on Monday and two 83-minute classes the rest of the week. Several parents, students, teachers and curriculum experts say they do not want to lose daily classes in band, language, math and physical education where students benefit from regular and frequent practice. Some parents say they are unsure whether children with learning disabilities could handle 83-minute periods.
Laurie told the PTA president and staff on Oct. 26 that he wants to implement the new schedule in the next school year. He asked staff to vote on three possible schedules. He did not include leaving the current schedule alone as an option.
Emails show that the PTA president played an unusual behind-the-scenes role in the controversy. She sent emails to Murphy and the school board chair “on behalf of the Williamsburg PTA” describing the many people opposing the plan as a “few, very loud parents . . . who are trying to derail this process.” She said in an email that “hundreds and hundreds” of families supported the proposal, but indicated she reached that conclusion only because so few parents had contacted her on the matter. That seems at odds with a Nov. 9 parents forum and a Nov. 17 PTA meeting in which most of the comments, according to parents who attended, were skeptical of or opposed to the change.
In one email the PTA president told the principal it would be easier to install block scheduling if he shortened the time for parent comment. She said, “I really wish there was some way you could tell parents that change is inevitable.” The PTA president did not respond to my email request for comment.
I began writing about block scheduling 20 years ago, when the idea was quickly adopted by most Washington-area high schools. Policymakers felt that teachers could be more thoughtful and creative in much longer periods. Research since has shown no significant differences in achievement rates between students using traditional and block schedules. I asked Arlington officials for studies that support the reform but got none.
Middle schools have been less eager than high schools to adopt block schedules. They are still dealing with basics, where repetition has value. Williamsburg is a great school that might make it work, but not without additional discussion and clarity about the level of support.