As school leaders across the nation look toward the remainder of the school year, phrases like “unprecedented times” and “adjusting to the new norm” still linger. Educational leaders continue to adapt to the ever-changing instructional and operational landscape that a global pandemic has presented. Seasoned principals know that spring brings an exhaustive to-do list, with master scheduling occupying much of the time. This process can be daunting, even under the best circumstances, but the monthly checklist below will help you prepare to build your best master schedule yet—and maintain your sanity.

Before you dive into the monthly tasks for the spring semester, first reflect on the fall semester and ensure the following tasks have been completed:

  • Finalize school initiatives affecting next year’s staffing and scheduling. Examples might include changing the number of periods in a day, moving to a block schedule, changing course offerings in your Career and Technical Education (CTE) department, or adding new advanced academic offerings. 
  • Update course catalogs to reflect changes for the new year. 
  • Obtain board approval for new initiatives, if necessary. 
  • Meet with parents of eighth grade students regarding personal graduation plans. 
  • Update secondary students’ four-year plans.

January—Gather Information and Set Expectations

  • Meet with all students to discuss course offerings for the coming year. Holding such discussions in English or social studies classes would be an excellent choice, as these classrooms are often grade-level homogeneous. 
  • Offer informational sessions for parents to ensure they are an active part of their student’s educational journey. 
  • Obtain master lists of students in special populations, such as special education, students with 504 plans, students who are bilingual or English-language learners, students with dyslexia, students enrolled in gifted and talented programs, and students who are over-age for their grade. Be sure to include your feeder schools.
  • Set expectations with a hard deadline for counseling staff to enter course requests into your Student Information System (SIS). As a guideline, if your goal is to have your master schedule built by May, it will be advantageous to have all course requests finalized by the first of February. If you plan on building your schedule during the summer, have your course requests completed by spring break. 

February—Finalize Course Requests

  • Finalize all student course requests in the SIS. 
  • Review enrollment lists to determine what courses will be dropped. For example, if a course has fewer than 10 requests, a decision will need to be made to determine if you will still offer the course next year. 
  • You also have the option of stacking appropriate classes, which occurs when an instructor teaches two or more courses during the same period. This is commonly found in CTE. For example, an accounting class might have eight Accounting I students and five Accounting II students enrolled. These 13 students will sit in the same classroom for the period. 
  • Run a report to locate students who might have too few, too many, or potentially missing course requests for next year. When these students are identified, counselors should meet with each student individually to allow for other courses to be selected. 

March—Prepare Your Staffing Projections 

  • By this time, you have probably received your allotted FTEs (Full Time Equivalent or teachers) for the next school year. Work with your school administrative team to decipher how to best utilize the total number of FTEs. 
  • Be prepared for teacher turnover. It is essential for your administrative team to know who is leaving at the end of the year and who is retiring over the summer. Having an idea of who will be returning plays a huge role in your staffing plan! 
  • As they say on Shark Tank, “Know your numbers!” How many of your existing staff are returning, who do you need, and will you get to replace them this year? 
  • Have a good grasp of your projected student enrollment. Are you a fast-growing school, is your enrollment declining, or will it stay constant next year? 
  • Hold onto these numbers. You will revisit them and put them into action once you start your build in the next few months. 

April—Confirm and Communicate

  • Review courses with selective rosters. These courses have pre-identified students, such as athletics, marching band, Destination Imagination, AVID, etc. Have each coach or sponsor review and verify each roster with a hard deadline for making changes. These lists are extremely important to the master schedule and should be complete prior to beginning your build. 
  • Double check your SIS information. Like you did in February, run a report to locate students who might have too few, too many, or potentially missing course requests for next year. This information must be as accurate as possible prior to beginning your master schedule. 
  • Now is a good time to provide students with their updated course requests. Communicate with parents to inform them that this is a prime opportunity to finalize their child’s schedule. If you want to minimize summer schedule changes, complete this step! 
  • After communicating with parents, have counselors finalize any last-minute changes to course requests, ensuring requests are as clean as possible prior to scheduling. 

May is the time to begin putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Before you begin your actual build, ensure the number of sections generated from course requests matches the number of sections for which teachers are available. Refer to the staffing projections you prepared in March. This is also a critical step to ensure you produce a comprehensive, data-driven campus staffing plan that maximizes staff capability and meets student course needs.

Designing an effective, student-centered master schedule doesn’t have to be an overwhelming, dreaded task when you approach it as a methodical, powerful process for school improvement. Your school’s master schedule is an essential tool for aligning student learning with performance goals, driving instruction, and providing a roadmap to success. The culmination of the scheduling process is the creation and distribution of a master schedule that supports your vision for student success and promotes rigorous, equitable opportunities for all learners. 

Jill Blankenship, EdD, is a Regional Vice President of Cardonex Sales for Education Advanced, Inc. and a former Texas public school administrator. Kelly Manlove, EdD, is the Chief Operations Officer at Education Advanced, Inc. and a former Texas public school administrator.