Traditionally, once a master schedule is built for a middle level school and student course requests are entered, the process begins with students being placed in singleton or specifically targeted sections to meet needs of students in the exceptional children’s (EC) program and/or accelerated sections. Often, that’s the toughest part of scheduling. Previously, a simple button click in the data management platform generated schedules for students and teachers in seconds. While arbitrary placement is easier, it is neither purposeful nor intentional. Our school chooses to take a different path to work to meet the needs of students and staff.

In an effort to provide teachers the opportunity to take ownership of the scheduling process and be intentional with student placement, our teachers (for both traditional and exceptional programs) and support staff come to campus during the summer and create their own class rosters. After initially placing students in co-teaching settings, accelerated sections, or other specific sections based on individual needs, homogeneous teams of students are built based on gender, ethnicity, EC/academically and intellectually gifted classification, and reading and math scale scores. We also take into account students needing to be separated from one another and other student-specific needs based on previous teachers’ recommendations.

Once each team of students is created, we generate index cards for each student noting: their name, assigned team, ethnicity, gender, disability classification (if applicable), academically gifted classification (if applicable), reading scale score, and math scale score. We include the core blocks on the card so teachers can note the student’s final schedule. For predetermined courses (e.g., inclusion classes), these blocks are prefilled so teachers know to schedule the child around that course.

Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multitiered System of Support (MTSS) are not part of the scheduling process for teachers. Administrators, our MTSS coordinator, and our school psychologist work during the summer to purposefully place students in intervention groups based on results from state testing, historical test data, end-of-year screening data, and progress made during the previous school year in the intervention area. We enter intervention sections into our data system so we can begin targeted work with students at the beginning of the school year.

When individual teams come to campus to work on their rosters, we review the following parameters/guidelines:

We’re consciously purposeful. We explain the arbitrary nature of how our data management system blasts out schedules for each student without data-driven parameters or intentionality. By working through, student by student, teachers are able to build student schedules with a purpose, and we are able to “touch” each schedule and do what is in the best interest of each of our students. We also discuss how taking time to make data-driven scheduling decisions on the front end will pay dividends to teachers’ work with students over the 180 days of instruction.

We’re consciously mindful. We have no class-size ceilings; however, we encourage teachers to consider the amount of physical space in the classroom. A few teachers want the ability to group some sections, and we discuss how, in general, higher-​level classes could/should have fewer behavioral issues, and therefore, could sustain larger class sizes. Teachers are encouraged to look at the research behind leveling classes, reflect on their personal strengths and weaknesses, and have conversations with the administration to make informed decisions.

We keep running totals of demographics to ensure that we maintain balance as teachers work through scheduling. Based on information given to the administration by teachers at the conclusion of the previous year, we keep students who’ve had conflicts in the past separate from one another. We encourage teachers to treat every student like their own child. Teachers assigned co-teaching sections are reminded to be aware of class size/percentage of regular education versus EC students in the section. We also provide lists of students with 504 plans and behavior plans.

In having conversations with teachers, we built the following frequently asked questions list we share with staff:

  • Can we level classes? Yes, with a purpose—analyze the research behind it; consider your strengths and weaknesses, and let’s talk before proceeding.
  • Can we move students later (after the school year begins)? Yes and no. If classes are grouped by ability based on data and a student needs to move to a more challenging section, we can make the move. If data shows a student needs to be in a challenging section, yet their performance is not matching their data, we need to have a conversation about why they are struggling before moving the student. Any change we make must be purposeful, intentional, and communicated with parents.
  • Can we single-gender a section? Let’s discuss this if you choose to pursue it (none chose to pursue this route for the current school year).
  • Is there a student on my list creating a personal/outside-of-school conflict? Let’s talk and make changes. If students are moved between teams during roster creation, we are going to move a “data-similar” student.
  • Can I tell parents and students they are on my team? NO!! Everyone will receive their schedule at orientation.

Seamless Process

The process flows seamlessly—most teams take a full day, some more, others less, to create their class rosters. During the process, one teacher asked, “Is 32 too many for one class, even if they are purposefully placed?” Her question was returned with a question. I asked her how she would feel if I or our data system had placed 32 students in her class versus her having placed 32 students in her class intentionally. She responded noting the difference in the number 32 when it is an arbitrary number versus a class she created with a purpose. This conversation immediately supplied the feedback we needed to realize that this process was valuable.

As new students enroll after rosters are crafted (at the end of summer and throughout the school year), teachers are very intentional about making recommendations for a student’s schedule. This requires them to dig into the child’s data to gain a glimpse of their history, which often goes above and beyond the numbers following the student—the qualitative and anecdotal data the teachers gain through the process is valuable for initial relationship building and for their future work with the student.

Our data manager plays a major role in the scheduling process. This process requires her to enter each student’s schedule by hand. Her willingness to take on this responsibility and teachers’ willingness to take time from summer vacation are great exhibits of the teamwork it takes to help students be successful.

Reflecting on the exercise, we realize this process serves as a great precursor to the work we complete each year. We are very intentional with our data and using it to inform instructional decisions in our classrooms. With teachers making data-driven decisions before even meeting their students, the groundwork is laid for the school year.

Many teachers have already asked if they will have the opportunity to create their own rosters again. I look forward to partnering with them in the process in the years ahead.

Chris Bennett, EdD, is the principal of Burns Middle School in Lawndale, NC.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Consider implementing these tips for a purposeful middle level schedule:

  • Purposefully create each student’s schedule based on academic, social, and behavioral needs. Have core teachers use qualitative and quantitative historical data to place students in sections to create intentional student groups.
  • Provide parameters and guidance for core teams prior to beginning the student scheduling process. This is important to help teachers feel comfortable with the process and for administrators to be readily available to offer assistance and answer questions.
  • Provide teachers the opportunity to buy into the scheduling process and help plan for the upcoming school year through teacher-created section rosters. This way, teachers have background information on students prior to the first day of school and can begin planning accordingly.

Twitter Talk

Want to carry on dialogue about scheduling with Chris Bennett? Tweet him @cbennett_unc.