Unanswered questions

By Doug Snover

As the academic year winds down, questions are swirling around the Kyrene School District. Will changes to the middle-school schedule help students succeed in core courses such as math, or hurt the music and performing arts programs in middle schools and high schools, or both? Will board president Rae Waters be recalled for supporting the schedule change?

It may be an uncomfortably hot summer for the Kyrene District.

Parents angered by the school board’s new emphasis on “core” studies over electives have threatened to recall Waters before anyone knows for sure the answers to the first question.

Two other board members who supported the schedule change have escaped the recall effort only because one, John Doney, already had announced his intent to resign and move out of state. The other, Sue Knudson, has not been on the board long enough to be recalled.

This much is clear: When the 2005-06 school year begins in August, students at Kyrene District middle schools will be spending more time in math, science and other core courses and less time in elective classes such as music and performing arts.

Figures prepared by the district show this:

Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders next year will spend a total of 11,844 minutes in each of their Language Arts, Science, Social Studies and Math classes, based on a 68-minute class Mondays through Thursdays and a 57-minute class on “early release” Fridays.

“Even on early release days the periods will be longer,” noted Johnny Cruz, the district’s communications supervisor.

For sixth-graders, that’s a 23.8 percent decrease in Language Arts and Math instruction and a 52.5 percent increase in Science and Social Studies instruction.

For seventh- and eighth-graders, it’s a 23.8 percent decrease in Language Arts instruction and a 52.5 percent increase in Science, Social Studies, and Math instruction.

Minutes spent in elective classes, or “exploratories,” will decrease by 16 percent. Students will attend only one elective class per day.

Spanish, which had been taught to all seventh- and eighth-graders, will become an elective course starting in the fall and will be offered for the first time to sixth-graders, too.

The Kyrene board approved the controversial schedule change in March, much to the frustration of parents who wanted it to protect the popular elective classes.

District officials call it a creative solution to meet budget woes while bolstering the core classes that will be subject to Arizona’s AIMS testing.

Some parents, however, say the elementary school district is gutting middle-school music and performing arts programs in a way that will soon have a detrimental effect on area high schools, too.

Kyrene students have been used to having eight periods in the typical school day, each lasting 43-45 minutes. Two of the eight periods each day were reserved for elective courses.

Beginning in August, the typical school day will be five periods, each lasting approximately 68 minutes. Only one period per day will be reserved for electives.

Students still will be allowed to take two electives per semester, but those classes will be taught on alternating days. The bulk of each school day will be spent in core classes lasting more than one hour each.

Kyrene officials believe the longer class periods will help students master the core subjects such as math that are the crux of AIMS testing.

One hint of the potential for longer class periods comes from Kyrene’s sixth grades, which for several years have taught math in a “double-block” that gave students twice as many minutes of math instruction as any other class.

David Schauer, assistant superintendent for instructional services, said Kyrene’s in-house proficiency testing showed great progress in sixth-grade math since the double periods began in 2001.

Kyrene’s testing rated 48 percent of sixth graders as “proficient” in math in 2001, the year the double periods were instituted, Schauer said.

By 2004, math proficiency among Kyrene’s sixth graders rose to 65 percent, he said.

Schauer credits the extra instructional time with raising sixth-graders’ math proficiency. Only sixth graders received the extra math instruction, and only sixth graders showed the substantial increase in math proficiency, he noted.

“It’s pretty hard to think about anything else. We did not see those increases in seventh and eighth grades,” he said.

Spending more time in math class allows teachers and students time to apply mathematical concepts to the real world around them, Schauer noted.

For example, students in longer math classes have time to go out and measure the school gymnasium after learning in class about square footage measurements, he said.

Schauer also said the longer class periods will benefit Kyrene middle-school students trying to earn high school credit for math classes. With Kyrene’s shorter classes, “We’re trying to do the same thing with our kids in less time than they get in high school classes,” he said. Longer classes should put Kyrene’s students on a par with high school students studying the same math concepts, he said.

Schauer said he has “ongoing conversations” with local high school administrators and teachers about how Kyrene can best prepare its students for high school.

“We talk to the high school people all the time about what we need to do in order for our students to be prepared.”

There has been no clear consensus among the high school educators on Kyrene’s schedule change, he said. I think you’d have varied reactions there (from high school educators) just as you do from the parents,” he said. “It really depends on who you talk to.”

One issue that is undeniable in the Kyrene schedule debate is that 17 full-time teaching positions could be eliminated for an annual savings of $765,000. Cruz said no existing contracted teacher will lose his or her job. Instead, the 17 positions will be eliminated among retirements, teachers who voluntarily leave the district, and teachers who had only one-year contracts that expire at the end of this year, Cruz said.

“Kyrene’s season of growth has ended,” Cruz said.

Enrollment in Kyrene schools peaked in the 1999-2000 school year at 18,614 and has dropped to 17,470 in the 2004-05 school year, a 6.1 percent decline, according to budget numbers posted on Kyrene’s web site, www.kyrene.org.

This year’s budget of $88.65 million is approximately 2.4 percent bigger than the 2003-04 budget of $86.59 million, with 66.2 percent of the current budget going to instruction, just over 12 percent spent on operations and maintenance and the remainder for various support programs, administration, and transportation.

“Expenses are going up and revenue is going down,” Cruz said.

“Certain things are no longer as affordable as they used to be.”