Block scheduling is back in River Forest District 90’s Roosevelt Middle School and the question remains: Is it back because of curriculum or safety? I’m concerned by a persistent lack of transparency on the topic of changes to curriculum and instruction. Last week, some school leaders were champions and others reached new lows. The evidence follows.

Two years ago, the D90 Board of Education (BOE) moved to adopt a new schedule that would use four 85-minute periods per day, replacing eight 40-minute periods. Back then, and long before safety concerns over COVID-19, the community was told the schedule would solve for more math instruction, and would come at the expense of foreign language and art. This drew nearly 500 signatures on a community petition and over 160 parents to the unrecorded D90 Community Feedback Session.

I know Principal Larry Garstki as a straight shooter. I had one question of him that night: Why all this change now? He no sooner replied “to accommodate the new curriculum” when BOE President Ralph Martire leapt from his seat, stole the mic and changed the subject. Odd behavior given a wonderful opportunity for a school principal to answer questions in front of an audience that rivaled the annual school musical.

I was following the topic closely, sensing the disconnect between school and community, and beginning to take heat just for asking questions. It was becoming clear this high-performing district adopted new curricula designed using a teaching theory also new to the district — constructivism. In general, the theory says children learn better when they have more time for ideas that originate with them instead of teachers guiding a lesson. The change was central to the Vision for Equity initiative aimed at reducing the racial predictability of achievement. So far, it’s unclear how this is helping all children. 

I’ve reported enough on recent academic declines in the district. Now I wonder what might be different if Larry were able to finish his thoughts that evening. Would there have been more discussion? Would there be less confusion and contention today? 

Instead, the district let the community dawdle over more math time at the expense of art and foreign language. In a packed house, and under pressure from the community, the BOE backed away from block scheduling that would have aligned with curricula already in use — but not for long.

Block scheduling had been adopted in February through committee and was up for discussion at the April 16 BOE meeting. There are pros and cons to block scheduling, which you can hear about in the recorded zoom meeting — visit the D90 website and pick up at about 37 minutes. 

Superintendent Condon speaks of mitigating health risks by limiting mobility. He also said, “We will be doing everything in our power at all three schools to be limiting the number of interactions kids have, particularly the first half of the coming school year.” Later Principal Garstki said, “The schedule [next year] will look very similar to the way it is right now” and identifies a current gap in teacher training for this kind of instruction. Curriculum Director Allison Hawley volunteered that the curriculum in use now for math and science requires 60 minutes, reading and writing 90 minutes, and said, “It’s helpful that we have a schedule that is evolving to support that kind of instruction.” Yes, I think she said teachers have had 40 minutes, maybe for a couple years, to teach curricula designed for 60 to 90 minutes because the community wanted to save foreign language and art. 

Last, in a scene mimicking the Martire mic-grab, BOE President Rich Moore exercised his authority saying, “Number one, we’re doing this as a mitigating circumstance … the communication needs to be out there. As you’ve said it very clearly here, it is a mitigating circumstance.” He seems to direct attention away from curriculum matters discussed by Garstki and Hawley, never mentions recent academic decline, and instead points exclusively to safety as the reason for change. 

The meeting covers the pros and cons, but makes a mess of explaining why. Is it curriculum or safety? The evidence begins years ago and it piles up here, when the BOE, the superintendent, the curriculum director, and the school principal still can’t provide a consistent explanation for why block scheduling now. 

When transparency leaves the school, so does community trust.

(https://district90-org.zoom.us/rec/play/wLuMkGQnoYBo8fzu4xpZ7L2ZgCzkMRrYmsWbsyEbcEil9zTL4cgpb41sM4UPSwoS0bLKpVIr-c4L904Y.tLSUJQNgvDFWklOe)

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