Flex opens doors at schools
Phase two of high school redesign rolls out
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Feb 05, 2014 06:00 am
Fridays will soon get a lot more flexible at Morinville’s high school as part of a province-wide move to shake-up school timetables.
Morinville Community High School jumps into phase two of the High School Flexibility Project this term with the introduction of Seminar Day – an initiative where students can take day-long courses and plan their own timetables.
The initiative, which will be test-run on three Fridays this March before rolling out in September, was announced in this month’s school newsletter.
MCHS is one of about 96 schools taking part in the High School Redesign project, which is what the Flexibility Project has become, said principal Todd Eistetter.
Whereas most schools in the project are testing out a “flex block,” similar to the one now used at Bellerose Composite, MCHS will have a “flex day” (Friday) where students will get to choose from a variety of activities that wouldn’t fit into a normal school period.
“We’ve got a fencing seminar going on,” Eistetter said as an example. “We’ve got a martial arts group coming in.” They also have plans to run a robotics class and a university prep course.
Students will get to pick and choose which events and courses to take through the school’s Powerschool system, which will also track attendance.
Some days will feature mandatory blocks where teachers will teach remedial courses, Eistetter said. Others may feature day-long field trips.
“It’s going to provide (students) with some significant opportunities,” he said.
Why flex time?
The 2010-2013 Flexibility Project was an experiment run by Alberta Education at 16 schools (including Bellerose) meant to increase student engagement and graduation rates.
Central to it was the idea of ditching the Carnegie unit – a concept that said every course credit should be linked to 25 hours of instructional time (i.e. 125 hours for a five-credit course), and that had governed school timetables for about a century.
The Flexibility, or Flex, project relaxed the 25-hour-per-credit rule to give schools space to experiment. Some tried after-school classes, for example, while others offered dual-credit ones in partnership with post-secondary schools.
Most created a Flex block – a chunk of class time during which students were free to get help or take part in extracurricular activities.
Bellerose carved about 30 minutes of instructional time out of every day and adding it onto lunch to create its 67-minute Flex block, said principal Larry Dick.
Students can use Flex to get help from teachers (all of whom are available over lunch) or take part in student activities (such as the annual Bikeathon).
Bellerose student J.T. Barglett said he spends his Flex time in the gym when he can and in math and biology help when he needs it.
“It’s not just like a typical study hall ... the teacher’s there to help you.”
Fellow Grade 12 student Marley Reburn said Flex gives her time to help out on grad council – something she’d be pressed to do after school due to her two part-time jobs.
Some students do use it as an extended lunch-break, but that’s not always a bad thing, Reburn said.
“You have part-time jobs and we’re in sports,” she said.
“Having 75 minutes to spend going out to lunch with your friends sometimes can be really beneficial for you.”
Does it work?
A report from Alberta Education on the Flex project suggests that the experiment was a success.
The report found that high school completion rates rose or held steady at 69 per cent of participating schools, while dropout rates fell or held steady at 94 per cent of schools. Rates of course completion rose or held steady at 88 per cent of schools, while intellectual engagement rose at about 81 per cent of schools.
Dick said he’s seen a general uptick in social activities at Bellerose because of Flex, with students using their Flex time to take part in clubs and plan major events such as the Bikeathon.
But Dick said the Flex block also leaves less time for classroom instruction, and that can cause teachers to cut the “fun stuff” out of some courses.
Nor does Flex guarantee student interest, he continued. Some teachers have poured effort into creating unique Flex activities only to have no one show up for them. Help-sessions may be full of students, but are the students who really need help amongst those in them?
“The take-up puzzle hasn’t been solved,” Dick said.
Still, Dick said Flex means that teachers can no longer rely on having a captive audience for their lessons, which has pushed them to take a fresh look at how and what they teach.
“Bellerose has become a better school because the (Flex) project has forced educators to look at how to engage kids voluntarily.”
Dick said Bellerose plans to keep its Flex block as it heads into phase two, but might shift its spot in the day around to see if that makes a difference. This fall, they hope to start up advisor groups where teachers will meet with small groups of students for one-on-one coaching.
Schools that get into Flex need student councils that work hard to create interesting activities during their Flex blocks to motivate students, Barglett said.
“You have to develop a certain atmosphere around Flex so it’s not just a lunch block.”
Dick hoped Flex would push schools to a more Career and Technologies Studies way of teaching, one where students are judged based on their ability to do a certain task (e.g. “Can you fix this engine?”) rather than the amount of time they spend learning it.
“Learning and time are not the same,” he said. “Some kids can finish in 80 (hours). Some need 140. … How can we help kids do that?”
High school is about developing the assets you need to become a young adult, Reburn said, and Flex teaches you one of the most crucial ones: time-management.
“I’ve been able to become so much more and become so much more versatile because of what Flex has offered,” she said.
“I love it, and hope they never change it.”