TOWNSEND -- The North Middlesex Regional School Committee decided in a split vote Tuesday to adopt a new schedule for the district's high school next year, against the recommendation of the superintendent.
Despite being deadlocked earlier in the evening, the committee voted, 5-3, to adopt a modified block schedule for next school year after a change in vote from Chairman Susan Robbins.
Robbins said although she initially had hesitations about rushing the transition, she decided the school and district staff were capable of handling the change, which the committee had planned to adopt in the long run.
"I do feel confident in the ability of our district leadership to execute it to get us ready for the 5 by 8. I know it's a lot of work. I know we can do it and I'll do everything I can to support them and make sure we're successful for our kids," Robbins said after the meeting.
Superintendent of Schools Joan Landers had recommended keeping the schedule as is for next school year, and changing to the "5 x 8 modified block schedule" for the 2015-2016 school year. The change would allow students to take eight courses, with five 70-minute class blocks each day. The courses taken each day would follow an eight day rotation.
Under the current "4 x 4" system, there are four, 87-minute blocks per day, and the year is divided into semesters between which students' course selections change.
The training needed for teachers to adopt the new schedule, as well as difficulties for the special-education department in revising students' Individualized Education Programs before the fall, were the two major roadblocks in implementing the change next year, Landers said. Collective bargaining agreements would also have to be negotiated immediately with the teachers union, which the school committee voted 5-2 to begin immediately.
But a crowd of about 40 students and parents wanted the change to happen more immediately. Many students said that they felt the current schedule system was too restrictive, and didn't allow them to take the courses they wanted to take while meeting academic requirements.
The current sophomore class has stricter graduation requirements than those before them, including the Integrated Math Modeling program that takes up 25 percent of every freshman and sophomore's schedule.
Sophomore Kaitlin Baker said while she strongly supports the IMM program, the way the schedule is set up is simply too restrictive, not allowing her to take electives she wishes to take.
"I understand why we might need to wait a year, but I think it's necessary now, personally," Baker said.
Sophomore Elizabeth Palmer said she doesn't know any students who don't support the schedule change because of the increase in opportunities it would provide.
"It's impossible to be able to become that well-rounded student that colleges are looking for today," Palmer said.
Others decried the fact that the 87-minute class periods under the current schedule were too long to fill with lessons, and were being used by many teachers as time for students to work on their homework.
"In my opinion, class time is for teaching and homework is for homework, so if you're not getting 87 minutes of education you're wasting that time," said parent Michele Higginson.
Tyler Ferolito, a senior at North Middlesex, said the current schedule allows students to focus on fewer classes at a time. He recommended not making any immediate changes.
"I think that the kids of the future would benefit from figuring out what they do best, keeping it to four blocks and working hard at what they do best," Ferolito said.
School Committee member Crystal Epstein said she supported the change because of the flexibility it would allow students and the frustration from audience members over the change being delayed.
"It's four years of the students' lives and I'm not really willing to sacrifice one year of their schooling," Epstein said.
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