By Zachary Milewicz
Mention the word “blackout” to any student at Byram Hills and they’ll probably think back to a headache: a headache during two endless weeks of torture. Two weeks filled with immense workloads, more tests than can be counted on fingers, and highly elevated stress levels.
The end of each quarter can get busy. Students want to raise their grades, and teachers want to help them do so. How do they do it? By giving more assessments. When this occurs in all classes, it becomes overwhelming. Thus, the “Blackout Schedule” was created to eliminate the number of assessments that occurred during the last cycle of the quarter. However, “The old Blackout system was, in my mind, clearly broken,” says principal Chris Walsh. He explains that “It was established in order to alleviate stress and anxiety,” but furthers, “what it really wound up doing was actually making the blackout period, and the period just before and just after, very intense for students.”
Many students and teachers agree, as the Blackout Schedule has been critiqued for the past several years by both groups. The Blackout Schedule worked by assigning each subject area specific days to test on. This approach was flawed for a few reasons. First, some teachers were unable to test on their given day. For example, if the World Languages day was Drop 6, but Mr. Eagle’s Spanish class dropped that day, then they could not be assessed. They needed to have their exam another day, which is supposed to be for other subject areas. As a result, students ended up with an unmanageable number of tests in one day in some cases. At times, the Blackout Schedule also created unnecessary assessments. Teachers wanted to utilize their testing day, so they would announce an exam, even though they did not really have material to assess. On the other hand, some teachers finished teaching a unit before their testing date, so they had to wait several times before testing. Another drawback of the Blackout Schedule, as pointed out by Mr. Walsh, is that it did not allow for field trips while it was in action. This was problematic, as a lot of great opportunities for students outside the classroom were being missed.
After recognizing clear issueswith the Blackout Schedule, Mr. Walsh began brainstorming alternatives over the summer and spoke with members of the Principal’s Advisory Committee. While there were other proposals, the group eventually settled on “Staggered Quarters.” Alternatives included a circuit break, which allowed students to choose what exams they would opt out of if they have more than three exams in a given day. This system has been used by other schools, one being Scarsdale High School. When looking at that option, it was discovered that the administration “had to do away with it because students started to manipulate a lot of the benefits,” according to Walsh. Others included making adjustments to the Blackout Schedule, such as making it shorter, making every day an A-day, and extending it. In regard to Staggered Quarters, Mr. Walsh explains, “This one seemed to be one that really alleviated a lot of the problems from the teachers’ side of it and the students’ side of it.”
As the name implies, the Staggered Quarters system works by varying the quarter end date for different classes. It will be put into action for the first time this quarter (third). As seen in the graphic below, classes that fit under the World Languages and Social Studies departments end on March 21st. However, English, Physical Education, and Health classes do not end until one week later, on March 28th. Science, Fine Arts, and Special Education end the proceeding week (April 4th), and lastly Mathematics on April 11th. Note that these deadlines have been extended by two days due to the snow days.
From Walsh’s perspective, the majority of teachers have very mutual feelings about it. Although there are also the extremes. Some dislike it because they feel it impacts their the way they developed their units. There are also some teachers who felt like it was a really great idea. David Keith, Director of the Authentic Science Research Program, is one who sees the potential success of it. He explains that as a Science Research teacher, he is open to reasonable experimentation to help students and teachers be more efficient – as long as new ideas don’t initially become precedent-setting. Just as the Blackout Schedule was an experiment, Keith views Staggered Quarters as one too. He is looking forward to seeing how the new system plays out for the quarter. Walsh recognizes that this is just a trial and describes himself as “not somebody who says we’re doing this and we’re gonna stick with this no matter what.” He furthers, “If it’s something where kids are stressing out even more, I’m going to continue to look for ways that can alleviate that. It’s important to keep working towards something that’s good for everyone.”
Walsh is also looking forward to how the community reacts. He will be collecting feedback from students, teachers, and parents. A Google Form will be emailed out and if the results are positive, next year’s schedule will utilize the Staggered Quarters system.
This quarter is just a pilot for the system, but if it is put into place, adjustments will be made. One adjustment is the deadlines for each subject area. Walsh plans to work with different content areas to determine which classes make sense for specific lengths. However, over course of year, every class will have one longer quarter, one shorter quarter, and two middle quarters that are each ten weeks long.
The Staggered Quarters system was not actually possible years ago, during the time when the Blackout Schedule was created. The technology behind Staggered Quarters now exists due to eSchoolData. eSchoolData is the gradebook used by teachers to input grades, but it is also the same system where report card grades are posted. Each week, new letter grades will appear on report cards. The grades will appear the same day the quarter ends. In order to change a grade, teachers must fill out a form (as in the past). Unlike the Blackout Schedule, there is no way to “get around” the deadline. For example, while second quarter ended on January 24th, letter grades were not published on report cards until January 31st. This gave teachers a one week window to grade assessments and finish inputting grades to the gradebook. However, it also added an extra week of stress for students, as some teachers continued assigning work for the second quarter.
Critics of Staggered Quarters point out that the new system disrupts the balance among all four quarters. However, Walsh points out, “If it is done throughout the course of the entire year, then it is going to balance out. The second and third quarters are still going to be ten weeks. You would have one that may be twelve and one that may be eight.” He also argues that “We sometimes allow a three hour exam to count as much as a quarter,” such as the Regents. The same “inequality” is also present elsewhere, including the college admission process. Standardized exams – the ACT and SAT – are taken by students one morning, yet in some cases looked upon by admission counselors with the same weight as a four-year high school transcript. Finally, Walsh is confident in the ability of teachers to plan ahead enough so that what students are assigned in a shorter quarter is appropriate and is balanced.
One concern brought up by Guidance is that a lot of colleges require first and second quarter grades. Guidance wants to ensure that the new system does not impact standing with colleges in sending in grades, and it will not. In fact, the last of the grades are only going to be sent one week later than they normally would be, so it will not impact sending scores.
No other public schools in the area have tried this type of system yet, so Byram Hills is a modeling risk taking. Walsh views it as “a constant need to always improve on our system” and he is “hopeful, but realistic.” The entire community is optimistic that Staggered Quarters will work to alleviate stress at the end of each quarter.