When teachers discuss the recent changes they see in their students at the Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction on Manhattan’s Far West Side, it’s hard not to think they’ve hit on a magic formula.
“The students are calmer,” says Nina Silva, an English teacher. Her special education co-teacher, Frieda Kraft, says a couple of students who once struggled with writing and finishing assignments have shown marked improvements. English teacher Bryce Klatsky says his students are catching up on work they missed because of lateness or absences.
It’s not magic at work, but an innovative class block of 68 minutes introduced this September that gives teachers and students the gift of time. The school modified the DOE–UFT contract and chancellor’s regulations governing schedules thanks to its participation in the Progressive Redesign Opportunities for Excellence (PROSE) program. PROSE was launched at the union’s urging as part of the 2014 contract to give collaborative schools the ability to experiment at the school level.
“Working with the union’s PROSE staff and our school-based team allowed us to plan solutions that helped our students progress,” says Klatsky, the school’s chapter leader.
As in many other high schools, most classes at the Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction had been 40 minutes long. Principal Matt Willoughby said there had been “a building consensus” over a couple of years that teachers needed more time with their students, “especially when you want students to think deeper and more critically.”
An ad hoc committee of teachers, including Klatsky, discussed several variations before settling on the block. “There was a lot of thought behind it,” says Advanced Placement physics teacher Mark Cheng.
On Mondays through Wednesdays, students now have eight 49-minute periods of classes each day. After-school clubs take place during that part of the week, and Wednesday is parent engagement time for teachers.
The longer periods kick in on Thursdays and Fridays, when the periods are split between the two days. Periods 1–3 are offered on Thursdays for 68 minutes, and there is an 80-minute block set aside for an advisory period for students to consult with teachers and to do work on their own. Students are dismissed at 2 p.m. on Thursdays, giving teachers time for professional development for 70 minutes. Fridays feature 68-minute classes for only periods 4–8, which once again enables a 2 p.m. dismissal. Teachers spend the final 50 minutes on Friday afternoons doing professional work.
Silva says the longer blocks on Thursdays and Fridays give her more time to fulfill her lesson plan for the day. And she says students are calmer and more engaged. “You get so many good questions from the students with that extra time,” she says.
Klatsky says he believes the new schedule has helped him build stronger relationships with students. He’s also gratified to see students who are late or absent making up work with the extra study time built into the day. “It counters the narrative that students don’t want to work,” says Klatsky.
Chris Carpio, one of 13 students in Klatsky’s 11th-grade AP language and composition class, says he gained a better understanding of Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi,” the class assignment, thanks to the longer period. “I have time to read and reread it in class, and the teacher had the time to go through it with every student,” he says.
The longer time blocks don’t fatigue students, says Klatsky. “There are days when we schedule breaks, but the kids are so engaged they don’t want the break,” he says.
Principal Willoughby says the new schedule enabled the school to offer AP physics for the first time, because the longer period made lab work possible.
“I have the students look at the work and reflect on it, and they use student work time to make up work they missed,” says physics teacher Cheng.
The introduction of longer time blocks has also given a boost to students with disabilities.
“I feel like that time is so essential in math,” says Sue Rissberger, who co-teaches 9th- and 10th-grade mathematics. “It gives them time to understand the problem.”
Kraft, who co-teaches English, says the longer period has opened the door to deeper and richer classwork.
“I love that we can read and write in the same period,” says Kraft. “We can get beyond summary and do analysis. That’s the beauty of the block.”