It all started in 2010, when Bailey, a senior at ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough, NH, came to me with a problem. The problem was straightforward. The solution, however, was not.
She needed help studying for an upcoming physics exam, but she played sports, so she couldn’t stay after school to study. She didn’t have the same lunch period as her physics teacher, and her teacher wasn’t available before school. Bailey had tried, but she just couldn’t find time to get the help she needed. And she wasn’t alone. Students at ConVal were having trouble finding time for enrichment activities, extensions, mentoring, RTI, and social-emotional supports.
What they needed, I realized, was a systemic, personalized learning solution that fit into the school day. I knew I couldn’t support Bailey directly in physics, but it seemed crazy that we couldn’t find time for this driven young woman to get the help she needed.
To find a solution, ConVal created a team of teachers, staff, parents, and students. Working together, they came up with the idea of a flexible block. They called it Teams in Academic Support Centers, or TASC, and piloted the new system school-wide during the 2011–12 school year. It wasn’t a study hall or an extra class, and it wasn’t an advisory or after-school study session, but it had all the benefits of each. The goal was for TASC to be a personalized, student-driven, directed, targeted block—a time for academic as well as social-emotional support. However, the first iteration of TASC had some problems. In fact, it almost didn’t work. One of the biggest hurdles was the software. To be effective, teachers needed to be able to take attendance and schedule or reschedule students based on immediate needs.
Initially, ConVal used a Google-based program, but it just didn’t work. The school needed software designed specifically for managing flexible time. So, they went to the professionals. Enriching Students, a New England-based software company, created an application that allowed ConVal to handle the new, fluid system.
A Rocky Beginning
Despite its dicey start, TASC worked. After the first full year of implementation, the freshman cohort at ConVal saw a 31 percent decline in D and F grades, and 87 percent of teachers thought students turned in higher-quality work as a direct result. The team at ConVal was delighted. TASC represented a whole new model for school.
In 2015, I was honored to be named New Hampshire Principal of the Year and gratified that the flexible block model spread to 64 schools across New England. At ConVal, we believe the popularity of the model is due, at least in part, to personalization. Personalized learning puts students where they belong-at the heart of education.
Success in Other Schools
Guy Donnelly, principal at Kingswood Regional High School, agrees. In 2013, Kingswood, located in Wolfeboro, NH, implemented the ConVal flexible block model. Donnelly says he saw a dramatic increase in student attendance. “I can’t prove that it was because of TASC, but I think it is, because now our teachers can build much stronger personal relationships with kids,” he says.
Teachers see the benefits the flexible block model has on personalization, too. “Having TASC time during each day has allowed these curious students to plan, set up, and conduct experiments of their own choosing. Often, other TASC students become drawn into the activities happening at the lab bench and, before we know it, we’ve all learned something new and memorable,” says Moira Milne, chemistry teacher at ConVal. Andrew Brauch was the assistant principal at Winnisquam Regional High School in Tilton, NH, when they implemented the TASC model there. “We called it Bear Block, but the model is the same,” he says.
During flexible block time, students at Winnisquam can be found doing a variety of things—catching up on missed assignments, retaking tests, participating in student leadership teams, preparing for the SAT, or engaging in STEAM-based “mini-courses.” After the first semester of implementation, Brauch says, Winnisquam saw a 25 percent increase in As, and a 44 percent increase in Bs.
Brauch attributes much of this success to personalization. “You can run the model in a structured and flexible way so that each kid gets what they need without sacrificing class time,” he says.
Creating a Support System
At ConVal, the flexible block model develops personalization in two distinct ways. It allows students to tap into existing interests or explore potential passions, and it offers students extra time and support.
Sometimes these two types of personalized support take place in the same room. Take the band room at ConVal, for instance. On average, James Wickham, ConVal band director, has 25 students in his room. On any given day, a visitor might see 10 students practicing a section of music, two students reading books for another class, three doing makeup work, two working together to fix an instrument, and two writing music, while three others are accessing additional help.
“It is a good feeling for me when, during TASC, unprompted by my direction, I hear the trumpets practicing the music I gave them in second block, a tenor sax practicing a jazz band solo, a drummer learning piano, and a History of Rock student making up a quiz for a higher grade. TASC in the band room is an organized smorgasbord of high levels of learning,” Wickham explains.
And that’s just the band room. In other rooms throughout ConVal, students are taking part in an Alateen meeting or the Zen Den, social-emotional supports designed to create a positive school culture. Or, they might be listening to one of their peers speak about traveling to a foreign country as part of a TED Talk-style TASC-Talk program. Other students retake a quiz, finish homework, take a career exploration test, photograph an event for the yearbook, or participate in the school newspaper.
If a visitor came on a Tuesday, they would also see honors biology students gathered around a table working on projects. This honors program model was pioneered last year by Carol Young, the head of the ConVal science department. After heterogeneously grouping all of the science classes at ConVal, she was looking for a way to scaffold learning for those students who wanted more. The flexible block offered the solution. Now, once a week, honors science students go to Young’s room during the TASC block, during which they participate in additional project-based experiments and research.
However, the flexible block model is not only personalized for students; it is also uniquely personalized for each school. For example, schools schedule the flexible block in a variety of ways. At Winnisquam and ConVal, students meet each Monday with a dedicated mentor who can view their grades and make recommendations. In this way, the model is like an adviser program, only better. “Teachers used to tell me that they felt like camp counselors during advisory, because it was never a successful model. This gives teachers something purposeful to talk about with the students,” says Donnelly.
Using the flexible block model to personalize learning affects school culture in unique ways as well. Since implementing TASC five years ago, ConVal has seen a 41 percent drop in the number of behavioral referrals. During the flexible block, students “feel safe enough to ask for the help they need, whether that is social, emotional, or academic,” explains Brauch.
Six years ago, attendance rates at Kingswood were as low as 89 percent. Today, after implementing the flexible block, they are at 93 percent-well above the state average. “I was amazed by how quickly it became part of our culture,” Donnelly says.
Although the model is the same, the length of the block varies from school to school. At ConVal, the administration captured time during the day by eliminating one lunch period, reducing passing time by one minute, and taking six minutes from each block. This formula freed up 43 minutes of time. At Winnisquam, the flexible block is 41 minutes long; at Kingswood, it’s 42 minutes. “It’s a model, not a cookie-cutter thing,” explains Brauch. “You need to make it your own.”
Brian Pickering is the principal of ConVal Regional High School in New Hampshire. Amanda Bastoni, an EdD student at New England College and a CTE photo/video teacher at ConVal High School, assisted in the preparation of this article.
Making It Work
- Develop teacher leadership. Those interested in implementing a flexible block should consider a “tight-loose” approach to leadership. The flexible block model creates the “tight” structure, while school leaders simultaneously keep a “loose” approach, allowing teachers room to determine what, where, when, and how they use the time.
- Get the right tools for the job. The Enriching Students software allows schools to monitor where students are and make quick changes to schedules based on immediate needs.
- Don’t lose sight of the purpose. The flexible block model should be adopted to fit the specific needs of each school. The goal at ConVal was to facilitate student empowerment when students are on track with the core curriculum, and allow for teacher-directed learning when they are not.
- Keep the conversation going. It is essential to have consistent conversations before, during, and after development of the flexible block model.