Lawrence school board approves restructuring middle school schedules, changes to curriculum

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The Lawrence school board on Monday approved middle school schedule changes, including creating a seven-period school day for students and other changes that will affect programs such as physical education, Future City and zero-hour choir.

The curriculum change merges the current advisory and midday flex periods into one midday “Student Success” period. There is also the possibility of later start and release times for students, but details of how that would work with bus schedules had not yet been ironed out as of Monday night. 

P.E. courses will occur every day for one semester rather than every other day for the entire school year. Eighth grade classes already used this schedule, but it will be new for sixth and seventh grade classes, which used the yearlong schedule with alternating days. 

The plan also removes required health courses for sixth graders. The health curriculum will be added to other classes, such as P.E. and science, according to administrators.

The changes are to implement a school board-approved cut of 50 full-time staff members at the middle and high school levels, estimated to save $3.25 million, as part of next year’s budget cuts. 

The new schedule incorporates two periods of teacher plan time — one for team plan time in the mornings, and one for an individual plan period. 

Curriculum changes included the creation of Intro to AVID and Intro to STEAM classes, as well as other changes to the current structure for fine arts and communication arts classes.

The changes passed 4-3, with Shannon Kimball, Paula Vann, GR Gordon-Ross and Kelly Jones voting yes, and Erica Hill, Carole Cadue-Blackwood and Kay Emerson voting no. The votes split the same way on the closures of Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools later Monday. 

Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly shared with the board considerations for the new curriculum, including that middle school students will have fewer elective options and that the district anticipates there will be multigrade elective classes. There will also be class size minimums.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly speaks to the Lawrence school board on March 27, 2023.

The changes would also mean programs such as Future City and Model UN would either need to be requested as classes or be treated like clubs, as an effect of the switch to “Student Success” periods. 

The “Student Success” period, to be held around lunchtime, could include social-emotional learning with a tentative name of “Character Strong,” Kelly said.

“When you look at the data around our student behaviors, most of the behavior issues we have are — not surprising for middle schools — around lunchtime,” Kelly said. “So it would be really great to teach our social-emotional curriculum around lunch, and then practice those skills in the lunchroom.” 

The schedule changes would not allow for zero-hour choirs at middle schools as they are currently conducted. Because of the new team plan time before school, teachers couldn’t hold before-school rehearsals. 

“This doesn’t mean zero-hour choir has to go away,” Kelly said. “We’ll have to be creative and thoughtful with those teachers.” 

Garrett Viets, choir director at Billy Mills Middle School, spoke to the importance of Lawrence’s strong musicians, who he said often find their start with zero-hour choirs. He mentioned the regular success that Lawrence schools have in all-state music ensembles.

“Lawrence Public Schools cannot afford to lose its reputation as one of the best districts for music in the state, and we can’t allow zero-hour choir to be dropped,” Viets said.

Holding choir during the day, or during the new “Student Success” period, would present scheduling conflicts for students also in band, orchestra or gifted programs, Viets said.

Kelly said those students who take zero-hour choir are enrolled in nine periods rather than the normal eight under the current schedule, which makes them “more expensive.” It creates issues for plan time because teachers would have to be compensated for teaching instead of having morning plan time. Moving the morning group plan time to the afternoon would mean teachers and coaches involved in after school activities would miss plan time, he said.

Kelly also said that there’s an equity issue because parents and guardians have to get their students to school early, so those who don’t have transportation aren’t able to participate.

Monday’s student board member, Becca Craft, said that in her experience in a zero-hour choir, students and families work together to eliminate those issues by organizing carpools. 

Board President Kimball said she has been concerned about the effects of the district’s budget cuts on students in fine arts programs. 

The curriculum proposal also eliminates an eighth grade career and life planning course, in part because it’s difficult to staff, Kelly said, but it could become a high school course.

Chris Storm, a longtime mentor for Southwest Middle School’s Future City program, spoke about the importance of Future City and keeping it accessible to students. The program had just been recognized earlier in the meeting for placing 11th at the national competition in Washington D.C.

“Anything that we’re talking about here that is not fully inclusive of everybody is not the right answer,” Storm said.

Two West Middle School sixth graders spoke to the board during public comment, advocating for having P.E. class year-round rather than just one semester, as the new proposal outlines. Kelly told the board that administrators thought if some students needed P.E. year-round, they could probably take the class as an elective. 

Emily Bradford, West Middle School health education teacher, argued on behalf of health classes at the middle school. She spoke highly of her colleagues but said they are not certified as health educators, and they may not feel comfortable teaching some of the topics. She said the plans to cut the sixth grade health course would be a disservice to students.  

Board member Emerson, who voted against the proposal, said she thought the plans had a lot of good pieces but also a lot of “very concerning” pieces. 

“Honestly, I feel like if you guys had maybe another week on this, you probably would have it — but yeah, there’s a lot of concerns for me,” she said. 

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— Reporter Maya Hodison contributed to this article.

Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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