It’s been 20 years since Nevada High School made a major schedule change, by introducing a block schedule that made for longer class sessions, and had students taking less classes at one time. The block stayed in place for 20 years, and this year, it was altered to allow some of the shorter class periods to come back into play. This story takes us back to why the 4x4 block was put in during the 1990s, and helps us understand the reasons why scheduling changes have been implemented this year.
For the first time since it was implemented 20 years ago, Nevada High School is taking a step back from a full “block” schedule.
Nevada High School Principal Kody Asmus said this year the high school is running on a period-block hybrid schedule, which is a mix of both longer and shorter class periods.
“This (hybrid schedule) provides students the opportunity to take courses as either a block (88 minute-class for a term) or a period (42-minute class for a semester). For example, during block 1-2 a student can take either a blocked course (88 minutes) or two period courses (each 42 minutes). One student could have world history block 1-2 and another student could have geography first period and algebra I second period. A student could have all blocked classes, all period classes, or a mixture,” Asmus explained.
Changing how the schedule at Nevada High School works has been a point of discussion at some school board meetings for several years now. The concern has been whether or not a full block schedule meets all students’ needs.
“Block scheduling forces students to take 88-minute courses, and it also opens the door for there to be an entire year in between a student taking a leveled course,” Asmus said. He explained further. “For example, a student could take geometry first semester as a sophomore, then not take math classes second semester as a sophomore, not take any math classes first semester as a junior, and then take algebra II second semester as a junior. In that example, the student has gone an entire calendar year without taking a math class. Not an ideal situation.”
For those who can remember, the move to block scheduling was a huge point of debate in the community back when it was being considered as a new idea for Nevada High School, back when the eight-period day was the norm and a move to block scheduling — consisting of four longer class periods a day — was a move away from what most schools were doing.
Ray Murray was principal at the time and an advocate of moving to the block schedule. Murray, who still lives in Nevada, said the “4x4 block” all goes back to Bill Spady, the “education guru” of the 1990s. “Nevada bought into his guidance big time,” Murray said, and explained that making changes was centered on helping kids achieve four learner outcomes — to become a self-directed learner, a collaborative individual, an effective problem-solver and a responsible communicator.
“The high school felt like we could not accomplish what we wanted to on an eight-period day,” Murray said. What the district wanted, he continued, was to teach kids how to learn, rather than just teaching data and facts. To do this, they believed they needed longer chunks of class time.
It turned into a battle, Murray recalled. He said about half the teachers were for it and the other half against it. Those against the block were mostly teachers of math, music, special education and foreign language. The school continued to discuss it and consider it — holding public forums where it was hotly debated by parents — and wanting to have at least 70 percent of teachers in favor of it if they were going to make the change. They finally got there.
“I don’t remember the exact percentage, but we did reach the 70 percent-plus level and recommended it to our school board,” Murray said.
The school board approved the change in March of 1997 by a vote of 4-1, and the school implemented it in the fall of 1997-98.
“Every year I was principal,” said Murray, who did his final 13 years as principal at Nevada under the block schedule, “we studied ways of making our system better.” Recommendations for improvement were taken to the school board each January, he said. New courses, like AP courses, were added. The school joined the Story County Vocational Consortium while it was on the block. An alternative school was started at Nevada while on the block. “And the list goes on,” Murray said.
In his last data report to the school board, before his retirement, Murray shared successes that he tied to the block schedule, and he said the learner outcomes the district wanted for students were being met because teachers had more class time to teach and make class periods more engaging for students. He shared that the high school was earning above 85 percent proficiency in reading comprehension and math and above 90 percent in science.
“We found the 4x4 block to be quite helpful to help us best serve our students,” Murray said. “The new schedule was not merely adopted, the entire staff studied what was going right and wrong every year and then we made adjustments each year. We really worked at it.”
Students had mixed reviews.
“I remember we were all pretty skeptical of it at first,” said ReGeana Davidson, a former Nevada student. “It turned out to be pretty positive. You had plenty of time to discuss things in class and get work done, and ask questions. With the shorter classes, you barely got into a discussion before time was up.”
“It was great for some classes like P.E., and especially nice when we had a block off senior year,” said former Nevada student Brian Stowell. “I think it made math more difficult as we had to run through twice as much information in one day, and if you didn’t get the first part, you were left wondering. Overall, it was a good change.”
Larry Juncker Jr., a former student, said, “It was kind of confusing; if I remember correctly, we had Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday classes and then Friday alternated. I think I liked the eight classes better, it just seemed more traditional and if you had a class you didn’t like, it was easier to sit through a shorter class. The plus side was I felt like there was less homework with block scheduling, which was really important because homework took a long time before Google.”
Asmus said the hybrid schedule in place this year at Nevada High School has left about 60 percent of the classes longer, while moving about 40 percent of classes into a shorter period time frame. And, he said, at this time, the school has no plans to move to an eight-period-only schedule.
“If we moved toward a hybrid of period and blocked courses to meet our students’ needs because the block was not doing that, there is no way we could justify going to a period-only schedule, because we do believe there are students that benefit from blocked courses,” Asmus said. “The period-block hybrid schedule provides multiple learning paths for students while also increasing our chances of meeting the learning needs of each student. For some students, an 88-minute math class is not the optimal learning environment. For others, it is. By only offering blocked courses, we were forcing students into a learning environment that did not meet their individual needs.”
Asmus believes the district now offers the best of both worlds.
“The period-block hybrid schedule provides us the opportunity to increase our offerings (20-plus new courses this year), provide students an increase in DMACC and ISU opportunities, students are now able to participate in business collaboration and internship opportunities, we have an increase in cross-curricular learning opportunities, and more and more students are participating in our enterprise courses (foods, embroidery, CubTV, sports management and manufacturing/engraving). Prior to this year, our schedule was limiting students from participating in these unique learning opportunities, because it didn’t fit in their schedule. With more flexibility within our schedule structure and increase in course offerings, students now have the opportunity to participate in a variety of student interest courses,” he said.
Asmus concludes that like anything in life, change can be difficult. “However, if you truly believe in your reasoning for change and you are seeing positive results, then I think the decision that was made was the right one… I do believe the change (to the hybrid schedule) has been a positive one and look forward to continuing to assess our current structure and schedule and make changes … as long as they align with our district mission and core values.”