When local schools transitioned from in-class to distance learning practically overnight last March, they did their best but, as anyone with students at home could attest to, it was a big challenge. Given that schools have now had a couple months over the summer to weigh their options, streamline their systems, and really take a hard look at how they can best deliver academics in a virtual environment, one local high school, Rancho Cotate, found a way to better serve the needs of both students and teachers.
At the end of last spring’s semester, administrators heard the need from students to have better feedback; a clear, consistent schedule; live online classes; and have all teachers use the same platforms. They also realized that managing six to seven classes in a virtual space is overly cumbersome and stressful.
“We were able to determine that kids, parents and teachers all felt overwhelmed managing six classes in an online environment,” said Louis Ganzler, Principal of Rancho Cotate High School.
“There’s something about the intensity of the experience that is overwhelming. There are things in the class that are taken care of quickly when they are in person. For instance, a teacher throws out one single question where they want a response. If they do that online they now have 150 responses. Something like that has so fundamentally changed and it just goes down the line.”
To make it less intense and overwhelming, Rancho Cotate High School students will enter the fall semester with three classes versus six. Instead of having six to seven classes all year, they will focus on three in the fall and three in the spring. Each semester-long class will be the academic equivalent of a year’s worth of school. The students will focus on those three classes every day, versus the block system they previously used, in which some classes were only held on certain days.
There are several benefits to structuring students’ school days like this. First, it reduces the number of students each teacher will manage per semester, as well as reduces the class size to an average of 25, versus the normal average of 32. It will also make the transition to a possible hybrid system more seamless. Administrators are predicting that, even when in-person classrooms can resume, it will be limited. Having students only focus on three classes per semester makes it easy to cycle students into having one in-person class per day.
“Normally teachers teach five classes,” explains Ganzler. “But in the 3x3 [model], they’re teaching three each semester. This means they’re teaching a total of six classes, meaning we have an extra section per teacher to now divert the overflow over 25 into that section. So now we are poised into hybrid learning where students need to be in smaller cohorts, or groups.”
So far, the response from students, teachers and parents has been positive and supportive. Certain questions have arisen, however, to ensure that students are not going to be at a disadvantage if there is a learning gap, for example, of several months between classes.
“This model is far less exotic than I thought it was,” says Ganzler. “It’s been around for decades and there are many high schools that have it and they’ve kept it. The basic criticism of this model is that there is a learning lag between the sequencing of classes. For instance, if you have AP English in the fall, you don’t take the test until May. A student then has several months without AP English so how could they possibly pass it. That assumes that there is an incredible learning loss in a few months. What the research has picked up on is that in fact there is not this loss. The running hypothesis is that the focused attention and the fewer number of classes, coupled with an accelerated pace makes the things that they learn hold more firmly.”
Ganzler first got the idea from the principal at Ukiah High School who was also looking into adopting this schedule. Since then, a high school in Novato and possibly others in Marin County will also follow suit.
“There has to be a level of organization and trust within a system in order for this change to be accepted, because it is different,” says Ganzler. “When there’s so much turmoil there’s definitely a strong desire to remain the same. But the fact is that our conditions are not the same. So, we need a system that responds to the challenges that we’re facing.”