Task force presents Duluth School Board with alternatives to six-period day, but options carry a price tag

By Adelle Whitefoot

The Duluth School Board is considering several options for a new school-day schedule that would allow middle and high school students to take more classes — but all of the options come with added costs.

A task force was created last March to come up with recommendations. Earlier this month, it presented the board’s Education Committee with four schedule options for the district’s high schools and three for the middle schools.

The recommendations are in response to concerns and complaints about the current class schedule. Duluth’s high schools moved from seven to six periods a day more than a decade ago, as a way to deal with cuts in state funding. The district’s middle schools later followed suit. The moves have long been lamented by students, parents and educators, with the six-period day offering less flexibility, and fewer opportunities to take courses.

School day schedule options

This month’s presentation included three seven-period day options for the high schools:

  • A straight seven-day period, like the district used to have.
  • A seven-period day modified block, in which three days a week are seven-period days and the other two days feature courses in blocks, meeting for a longer period of time.
  • A seven-period A/B day, in which there would be three block periods per day that would alternate every other day, so students would have three classes one day, then three different classes the next day.

In the third option, “there is a seventh class, which is called a skinny period, where it’s half the length of a block,” said Michael Cary, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. “So the students are still getting seven periods a year, but six of those classes take up big chunks of time and one of those classes meets in a skinnier chunk of time throughout the year.”

The skinny period class would meet every day.

The task force also presented five-period trimester options for the high schools. In those options, a student would have five longer class periods a day; those classes would meet for only two-thirds of the year if they are traditionally a year-long class, or one-third of the year if they are traditionally a semester-long class.

For the middle schools the board was presented with three options for schedules:

  • A straight seven-day period.
  • A five-period block trimester option, similar to the high school.
  • A 4×4 block hybrid, in which there were be four class blocks per day. Classes would meet either for a full block every other day, or for a half-block “skinny” period every day.

Changing from the current six-period day would not come without a downside.

“One of the advantages of our current six-period day is that it allows one of the highest amounts of time in an individual course over an entire year” compared to other models, Cary said. “As you move to provide more course choices, you lose some of the amount of time you would have in an individual course. So basically you are giving up time during the year on one course to create an opportunity to take another course.”

Potential added costs

There also would be financial costs — something that’s a particular challenge after the School Board was told in January that the district is facing a $4 million deficit for the coming year.

Cary presented the board with rough estimates of additional staffing costs to switch to any of the alternate schedule options.

The costs of the middle school options ranged from an extra $283,000 to $1.2 million per year beyond what is being spent now, with the seven-day period being the most expensive. The high school options ranged from $417,000 for a five-period trimester to $1.5 million for any of the seven-period options.

There also could be additional transportation costs if schedules changed.

Cary said the task force assumed that the school day would start and end at the same time it does now when looking at most of the schedule options, which wouldn’t result in any additional costs in transportation. But for the straight seven-period option, the school day would have to be lengthened, and if school started earlier there would be added costs.

“We currently have a two-tier busing system, which means our buses go out and pick up elementary kids and then they go out and pick up our high school and middle school kids,” Cary said. “If we were to push the start of the student day earlier it would no longer allow for that additional tier of busing and we would need more buses and more bus drivers.”

District transportation manager Michael Johnson said that if Duluth had to bus all its students at the same time in the morning, the district would need an additional 27 buses at an estimated cost of $1.25 million a year, and 10 additional special needs buses costing an estimated $612,000 a year — totaling more than $1.8 million in additional costs. The estimates are based on the district using Voyageur Bus Company.

If school hours were extended in the afternoon, extra transportation needs would be marginal, Cary said — but there would be other effects.

“The consideration you would have to take is how that would impact student activities at our secondary schools, and the travel time to the places they go to participate,” Cary said, along with the effect on after-school jobs and students who care for younger siblings.

Restructuring the curriculum to fit a new course schedule — even if the length of the day stays the same — would also cost money. Cary gave the board rough estimates, ranging from $175,000 to $385,000 to restructure the required courses at the middle and high schools, and from $690,000 to about $1.4 million to restructure every course offered at both levels.

“The straight seven-period day option, we would have very little if any curriculum revision costs,” Cary said. But any other schedule would need curriculum changes, especially the schedule options that would change year-long classes to two-thirds of a year, or semester classes to one-third of a year.

Path forward

There is currently no timeline on a School Board decision on whether to adopt a new schedule, and Cary cautioned board members to take their time.

If done too quickly, he said, it could lead to poor implementation and an unhappy community. Pre-work needs to be done “so that it works well for students, and works well for families and staff,” he said.

“I do think that overall it’s important to bring our community along for the conversation,” board member Josh Gorham said.

The Duluth school district is considering a potential referendum later this year to help cover its operating expenses, and some board members and task force members said any schedule changes will need to be a part of the referendum discussion.

Denfeld High School teacher Tom Tusken, who served on the task force, said “there is a real fine balance here between delaying and acting because I see this as a potential huge step forward for this school district in a positive way, to put us in a really competitive light amongst some of our competitors.” He said a revised schedule could benefit students currently in the district, and possibly draw more students into the district.

But, he noted, “I don’t think we want to delay too far but I also think it needs to be part of the planning going forward when we think about passing a levy. … (This) definitely needs to be a part of the conversation as far as the priorities in that levy.”

Board member Nora Sandstad said that if a revised schedule is a priority that would better serve students, and has the backing of the community, the district needs to find a way to cover the cost — even with the ongoing financial concerns.

“You can either look at what you’ve got and try and tweak it moving forward and sort of keep going as we’re going — or we can say, ‘Here is what we are prioritizing and these are the things that are important to us and we’re going to make our budget work around what we want to do as a district,’ ” she said. “I think that it’s important … when we have ways to improve the district that the community has bought into and that we’ve gone through a thorough process to vet things … that the board figures out a way to make this work.”