In Practice: Reimagining the School Schedule

Fall 2019

By Lise Schickel Goddard

inpractice.jpgOn 2,860 acres adjacent to a national forest and wilderness area, where the student packing list requires axes but bans cellphones, and an organic garden produces a bounty that rivals the most vibrant farmers markets, Midland School (CA) prides itself on innovative college preparatory education. With a philosophical commitment to place-based learning in a valley framed by an iconic mountain that turns orange and purple with wildflowers each spring, the school seems like an oasis from the pressures of the outside world for our roughly 85 boarding students in grades nine through 12.

But even here, in our inspirational surroundings, not even the soul-nourishing burritos, waffles, and home fries prepared by our beloved cook could get the students to the breakfast sign-in sheet on time. Students needed two “rising bells” rung in three sets of 40, the first at 6:45 a.m. and the second at 7 a.m. After breakfast, the students were sleepy in class, too. The 21st century college landscape permeated our rustic oasis and was driving students to spend afternoon free time doing homework and becoming industrious, stressed adults.
A mark of Midland students is that they’re more resourceful, responsible, and adventurous than typical teenagers. The lore of past decades fancies Midland students as builders and explorers out on the property during afternoon free time. However, the compelling learning opportunities—in the field and garden, the hikes, the overnight trips, the fantastic enrichment opportunities in our local community—just don’t fit into set-minute blocks during an academic day. It wasn’t happening like it used to, so we set out to find a new path back to our old roots.

Our Approach 

Midland’s 2015–2016 Self-Study for the California Association of Independent Schools/Western Association for Schools and Colleges reaccreditation opened the doors to do this work: The faculty unanimously concluded that the schedule needed reimagining. Our ideological commitment to experiential education was there—and the faculty was craving it—but our place-based curriculum with a mission-aligned commitment to stewardship kept hitting roadblocks in engaging students in the field (unless the lessons could fit into 45- or 90-minute blocks).
Over the next year, we convened a committee of administrators, faculty, and students to prioritize needs and to work through the collaborative and iterative process of designing a new schedule. To minimize risks, we took a holistic and transparent approach, inviting multiple voices and departments into the room. We weren’t just looking at class time, sleep time, or experiential time; we looked at all of these things in concert with each other. We set our priorities: ensure that our students could get at least eight hours of sleep every night (aligning with teenage circadian rhythms); create more quality time for activities the school and students value; and build the structure and staffing to support activities that speak to Midland’s mission (building, exploring, creating, investigating, and developing life skills).
In 2017–2018, we implemented a new schedule that was designed to align with teenage circadian rhythms and based on the conclusion of countless studies: Teenagers, as an age group on average, have a hard time waking up early; and their physical, mental, and emotional health suffer when they don’t consistently get their rest. So, we moved the start time of classes from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., and our rising bells to a single bell at 7:30 a.m. Thirty minutes is enough to be significant and noticeable for sleep—our students now arrive at breakfast to classes on time and more bright-eyed. 
We moved toward fewer and longer class meetings to better adjust the ratio so that there was more settled-in quality time and less busy transition time. Each class now meets for two 80-minute and one 45-minute period each week, rather than three 45-minute and one 90-minute. Fewer, longer classes (at most five) each day was a way to ease the homework crunch on any given weeknight, a front on which we also made progress.
Perhaps the most innovative and critical aspect of Midland’s new schedule was what we did to open up more opportunities for explorations that can’t take place during academic periods. We instituted weekly three-hour blocks on Saturdays and allowed room for trading these for other times (for example, midweek evenings). This shift has reignited our commitment to experiential learning, speaks to our commitment to lifelong learning, and draws from the outside interests of students and faculty. The weekly experiential blocks promote physical, intellectual, and emotional engagement with a place, person, idea, or experience while also exposing students to activities, places, perspectives, voices, and modalities that either open new frames of experience or augment classroom learning.

Building Out the Program

Our students are indeed more rested, however, we experienced significant gains on this front because we know that restful sleep is not just about rising later; it’s also about creating conditions for rest. We tapped into our long tradition of no internet where students sleep. Unlike the digital natives of their global cohort, our students’ last screen time session each evening is in the library or a classroom, followed by snacks, social time, and a physical transition toward cabins, with check-in by senior prefects and faculty, lights-out, and bedtime. Rooted in a bygone era, this is a lost and increasingly valuable rhythm for today’s digital natives and might be considered revolutionary in today’s uberconnected world. 
Our structured and staffed blocks on Saturday mornings have resulted in a drastic increase in students getting out on the property for hikes, overnight camping trips, trail crews, and farm-to-table meals. The new schedule has helped facilitate more overnight camping trips over the past two years, translating to a total of 415 and 450 student nights outside each year. We are now more fully stepping into our mission-based commitment to teach responsibility to the environment and love for the outdoors.
The weekly experiential block has also broadened the impact of our co-curricular programs, opening windows of exposure for students who might not be enrolled in those programs. Students who have never had the time to fit chorus or horses into their schedules, for example, now have access to a Saturday morning musical or equestrian block. 
The block also gives students opportunities to discover a passion for a subject they had previously written off or maybe never experienced. The student who thought math was boring might become newly invested after spending a Saturday learning about spatial math and knots or the congressional mathematics of gerrymandering. Likewise, we’ve broadened art and craft media outside of what is offered in art classes, including screen printing, comics and graphic novels, sewing, and photography.
With the new schedule, field trips suddenly become easy to integrate more regularly. Trips to The Getty Villa; the California African American Museum; University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) Arts & Lectures programs; diversity, equity, and inclusion conferences in Los Angeles; and events in the local community are more accessible given the flexibility of the new schedule. We are also free to think big about exposing students to timely, relevant, and significant issues and movements, paired with campus discussions. In fall 2018, we took more than half the school to UCSB to hear Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement.
We’re also turning our sights inward on community maintenance and building projects, from fixing doors and painting to learning how to change a car tire and check the oil. These activities speak to our commitment to teaching self-reliance, simplicity, and responsibility to community.

Key Takeaways

From the perspective of a scheduler, this Saturday block is a coup in some additional benefits it brings. While it provides the structure and staffing for excellent experiential programming, it also creates a time slot of nonaccountability or noninterference to do some things students have to do. When students have to take the SAT, rehearse for a performance, or travel for sports on a Saturday morning, they don’t have to miss (and make up) classes to do so. Moreover, it gives us a way to offer relief valves, like devoting a morning to self-care, class bonding, or health and wellness.
It is essential that the motivations for an ambitious program be grounded in the school’s mission. Of course, there have been challenges and tensions following these big changes, but alongside the North Star of our mission, they seem quite manageable.
Here’s what we’ve learned:
  • Leverage the school’s reaccreditation and strategic planning process to open up the space for major schedule or programmatic changes. 
  • Solve multiple problems together, rather than each one piecemeal. For example, addressing ways to find more sleep and decrease homework stress together will more holistically create conditions for wellness. Likewise, sleep must be addressed at both ends, not just the morning.
  • Every schedule change meets with trade-offs. Our later wake-up and start times offer more sleep, but push classes that much later into the afternoon, reducing athletic and free time.
  • It is essential to cultivate, plan for, and account for human resources. To pull off a program that involves all our students every week requires significant human resources, specifically dedicated administrative time and scheduling savvy as well as weekly commitment from our faculty, which requires creativity, buy-in, awareness of community events, and opportunism.
We’ve reframed our schedule to better align our program with our mission; Midland students are now better rested and are exposed to more learning modalities and opportunities. Taking our holistic approach further still, we are engaged in a broader curricular and co-curricular renewal that aligns with our entire program around the core competencies of a Midland graduate, from academic rigor to character to responsibility. We believe that a holistic perspective on the entirety of the student experience is an excellent model for programmatic adjustments, and leveraging the schedule to work for the students is a good place to start.
Lise Schickel Goddard

Lise Schickel Goddard is dean of studies at Midland School in Los Olivos, California.