I am Greatly Distressed About La Follette High School’s Four Block System

Dear La Follette Parents & Taxpayers,
I am writing because I am greatly distressed about conditions at La Follette High School under the 4-block system. I strongly believe that as parents and taxpayers you have the right to be included in the debate about your child’s education. Because I believe the future of the 4-block will be decided in the near future I am compelled to provide you with some information.

  1. Students in the traditional MMSD high schools are required to spend 50% of the credits required for graduation in academic areas. La Follette students are required to spend only 42% of their time in academic areas. Why does the district believe that La Follette students need less time in academic areas? Do the taxpayers support this decision? I understand that this is a debatable question. What I do not understand is why there is a different answer for La Follette students.

  2. The 4-block is intended to deliver a “comprehensive” education. What does this mean? From my anecdotal experience, I have concluded that less than 25% of our students are able to take 8 credits per year. If the district can’t provide the funds to deliver 8 credits per student, if most students are forced to take unwanted study halls and unwanted elective classes, what is the point of the block? Teachers have asked the district to provide data to refute this anecdotal conclusion.

    Approximately one year ago, teachers requested that the district provide statistical data on a variety of questions. The MMSD School Board agreed that this information was necessary. To date, I have not received any data. Scuttlebutt informs me that the data gathered is both incomplete and inadequate. I hope the rumor mill is incorrect.

  3. Under the 4-block, a La Follette student is one of 166 students assigned to a teacher of a full-credit class. In the other high schools, an individual child is one of 135 students assigned to a teacher of a full-credit class.

    (In ½-credit classes the ratio is 332/1 at La Follette and 270/1 at traditional schools.)

    This circumstance presents two questions:

    • A. Does a La Follette student receive equivalent attention from their teachers?
    • B. Can a La Follette student receive equivalent attention from their teachers?
  4. 4. La Follette full-credit classes are 18 weeks long. All other MMSD full credit classes are 36 weeks long. Do La Follette students have sufficient time to internalize knowledge and practice academic skills? As an academic teacher I do not understand why music is so important and difficult that it requires a year-long schedule, but academics do not. Why has it been concluded that academic knowledge and skills are easier to acquire or less important?

  5. Under the 4-block, a La Follette student’s full-credit classes have 15 fewer hours of instruction (direct teacher contact) compared to the other Madison students attending traditional high schools with the year-long 7-period day schedule.

    (La Follette- 90 minutes X 90 days = 8,100 minutes; 7-period day schedule – 50 minutes X 180 days = 9,000 minutes).

    This lack of instructional time has, historically, been exacerbated in the fall semester. In the fall semester instructional time is lost due to orientation activities associated with the beginning of school, WKCE testing, and Homecoming events.

    This year (2005), MMSD has scheduled the fall semester for 88 instead of 90 days. This schedule places fall semester, 4-block, academic students at a distinct and measurable disadvantage. La Follette students must absorb all of these activities in an 88 day, 7920 minute course. In all other MMSD schools, operating in the traditional 7-period system, these activities would be absorbed in a 180 day, 9000 minute course.

    Can a La Follette student learn as much content or as many skills with 15+ fewer hours of instruction? What content and skills are teachers forced to eliminate under these conditions?

  6. Under the 4-block, many students do not have equivalent prerequisite knowledge and skills. Administrative/organizational concerns appear to be driving the schedule (see #9). Thus, it has been decided (for what reason?) that students will be grouped by half-year. It has been decided to group history with science and math with English.

    This situation forces me to cope with serious pedagogical and ethical questions.

    My fall semester Advanced United States History students have not had 9th grade English, my spring semester students have had English or are concurrently enrolled. The standards for Advanced United States History require critical thinking and extensive writing experience. My fall semester students do not and cannot have the same amount of instruction or experience in thinking or writing skills.

    How, and to what extent, am I supposed to adjust the grading standards? How much time (which doesn’t exist, especially in a shortened semester) can, or should, I spend on teaching grammar and writing? In the traditional system these subjects are taught concurrently which provides the student with continual and supporting instruction from both classes. This lack of consistent exposure to writing instruction also impacts the opportunity for La Follette students to succeed in the sciences.

    My husband is a civil engineer and my son is working on his PhD in Chemical engineering (3rd year); both support my contention that writing skills are very important for all students.

  7. Maturational development is also a problem under the 4-block. “Slow starters” struggle in the fall semester. Concepts and critical thinking skills that students can’t master in the fall may be possible six months later. However, under the 4-block these students are no longer in my class. Six months later they may be enrolled in foods, art, social dance, etc. These classes, while self-fulfilling, practical and hand-on, do not offer constant opportunities for the practice of critical thinking skills that are so necessary for success and active participation the 21st Century.

  8. La Follette is an open enrollment school. How many of the transfers, to La Follette, enroll because they are credit deficient and are told that a semester or a year at La Follette is an easy way to make-up credits? In 2004-05, La Follette had to accept 262 new students. Additional allocation was not provided until teachers spoke directly to the MMSD School Board. Additional allocation was not provided or implemented until the end of the first ½-credit (semester class) grading period. Can La Follette students or teachers functional successfully under these conditions?

  9. The scheduling at La Follette has been historically troubled. Historically, students have easy and difficult semesters. Teachers have grossly imbalanced workloads. This term I teach two sections of “America Since 45”. One section has 10 students, the other section has 28. This course requires a substantial amount of class discussion and it is impossible to keep the two classes coordinated. Therefore, I confront three undesirable choices:
    • a. I plan 270 minutes every day (2 different sections of Am. S. 45 and one section of Adv. U.S. 9) – this is not logistically or intellectual possible.
    • b. I give the small class a significant amount of free time, camouflaged as enrichment.
    • c. I eliminate various topics/experiences from the larger class.

    I have been informed that next semester I will have the full complement of students. It is impossible to deliver equivalent instruction under these circumstances. There are always injustices, but I believe that the 4-block exacerbates these problems.

  10. The workload of 4-block teachers is significantly more than the teachers in other MMSD high schools (I can provide statistical data to support this statement). I believe this increased workload has a detrimental impact on the educational opportunities of La Follette students.

    I promised myself that this letter would be short and to the point. Obviously, I could not keep my promise. Yet, there is so much more that I believe you, as parents and taxpayers, need to know. If you are interested, I am eager to provide more information. I hope you will contact La Follette and MMSD administration to ask questions and demand answers (supported by data).

    Despite everything, I promise that I will work as hard as I can (a 60+ hour week) to help your child (every child). I have two children of my own (24 & 25 yrs old). I know it sounds stupid (corny), and that you may not believe me, but, I see my children’s “baby faces” reflected in your child. I deeply and truly want to help each and every one of my students. I am angry because I believe that the 4-block forces unnecessary and unjustified obstacles to my mission.

    In the interest of honest disclosure, I must inform you that I am a Madison Teachers, Inc. building representative. I have taught at
    La Follette for 15+ years. I have taught under the block since it was implemented (8 years ago). I became a union representative, for the 1st time, this year. I campaigned for a position as an MTI building representative when I could no longer avoid or tolerate MMSD policies that, I believe, are hurting my students. From my perspective, insufficient time-on-task, adolescent brain research on attention span, lack of funding, scheduling problems, alterations in start and end times (we no longer have the ½ hour after school to help students) and MMSD’s continual demand that teachers increase their workload is unacceptable (hence, this letter & my MTI campaign/position). I regret that I did not speak out on this matter several years ago.

    Please ask questions. Please become involved. Please feel free to contact me (cgredell@madison.k12.wi.us) if I can provide any assistance or information.

    Cecelia Gredell
    Teacher: Advanced United States History – 9
    America Since ’45 – 11
    Advanced Placement United States History – 11 & 12

4 thoughts on “I am Greatly Distressed About La Follette High School’s Four Block System”

  1. Cecilia,
    Thank you so much for posting this and sharing your concerns with the community.

  2. thank you for sticking your neck out. it is most laudable and apparently even more necessary than ever.

  3. I feel block is hurting AP classes and music at Beloit Memorial High School. Our Freshman, starting an experiment this current school year, are on the semester system with 1 block class at the end of the day, while the rest of the school is on block. If they changed the schedule for freshman to try to improve scores (check Beloit out on 10th grade test scores dpi.wi.gov) why isn’t it a problem for the rest of he school too? And why do they have 2 schedules (semester and block) in one school? I appreciate your insight
    Thanks for giving me a place to vent.
    Gwen Long

  4. I really appreciate your post and applaud your willingness to share. I’m also hoping that you are at school board meetings talking to those folks because parents don’t have much clout in this district!
    I’d like to hear from other teachers. I have been in schools with block systems and many teachers like it-less transition time, more intensity of focus, easier to compact for students who learn faster, more time to assist struggling learners, more “connection” with students over the semester, less issue with homework, more collaboration among staff.
    It sounds as if your schools “schedule” is one of the biggest barriers-how students are placed or not placed in complementary courses, and how semesters are “loaded”.
    I think if you deleted the 5 minutes per 50 minute period it takes students to transition each period, the amount of “minutes” would start to balance out (you actually lose about 5 minutes-or more-of actual instruction time on a 7-8 period day than on a block schedule).
    And, I hate to be negative here, but I do think it is EVERY teachers responsibility to continually teach writing in their content area course. One or two English writing classes isn’t enough for students-there needs to be explicit instruction in ALL classes-particularly through 10th grade!
    And equity among High Schools in Madison? Reality is that it isn’t happening and LaFollette is not the only HS that feels it! There is not equity in the High Schools in Madison! See previous posts (maybe Jim can attach them here about the discussions on HS AP classes and such).

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