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District 196 reimagines middle school

Secondary education director Mark Parr presents the district's proposed middle school changes at a special meeting Thursday.

Independent School District 196 introduced a revamped model for middle-level education at a special meeting Thursday night.

The new schedule, developed in a process that took much of the past year, includes a six-period school day, down from the current eight, increased opportunities to help students who are struggling and challenge those who are advanced, and a new way of handling electives.

The reduction in the number of periods each day will mean longer classes -- about 54 minutes instead of 41 -- and more time in core classes such as math, science and English.

The new schedule will preserve communication classes as a requirement but will open up room for student choice -- another priority identified in parent surveys -- by turning Family and Consumer Science and technical education classes into electives.

The district, which visited a number of Twin Cities school districts and held a panel discussion with representatives from four of the schools it considered most successful, made changes primarily to address test scores that typically slump at the middle level and in part with an eye toward a budget that will be stretched thin in a district that is contemplating a second consecutive year of budget cuts after voters rejected a proposed levy Nov. 4.

The schedule change as it was presented Monday means the district will need 26 fewer teachers and save the district $1.78 million. But Rosemount Middle School principal Mary Thompson said the structure of the new school day was in place before budget became a more serious concern.

"I would say that I'm really pleased with what the task force came up with," Thompson said. "If you look at the model, there's some things that maybe need little adjustments here and there based on the input we received from parents and staff, but overall I think it's going to be an excellent model to help students achieve at their highest level."

Reactions to proposal were mixed in discussion sessions that followed the presentation. Some parents questioned decisions that were made. They argued that FACS and tech ed classes teach students valuable skills and should be required rather than communication classes.

District 196 is alone among Twin Cities districts in requiring communications classes, and Thompson said there is a value in the classes. District 196 has long had successful speech and debate programs.

Others praised the new schedule, but many of the comments seemed like the result of parents trying to wrap their heads around a system that looks very different than what they are used to. How, they wondered, can schools offer both remediation and and enrichment to students?

The answer in many cases is that some of the schools already do. Many of the changes proposed are already in place in district schools and are being transplanted to other schools.

If it is approved, the new schedule will go into effect for the 2011-12 school year. Further changes will be phased in over the next three to five years.

"It will be an evolving thing," Thompson said. "It's not going to be all set and done the way it is next year.... This is a paradigm shift."

The new schedule will be officially presented to the school board Dec. 13.