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Schools balance core subjects with other classes, necessities

Published: Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Seventh-grader Amir Meghjee raises his hand for teacher Katie Colonna during a language arts class recently at Haines Middle School in St. Charles.

When St. Charles School District 303 announced that the middle school day would be structured differently this school year, students, parents and educators complained.

Students, they told the school board, would get less time for language arts and no longer would have a study hall period – a time for the kids to regroup, complete homework and get extra help from teachers.

Critics questioned the logic of taking such support away from students at a time when the state is adopting new academic standards that expect more from students.

Wredling Middle School Principal Steve Morrill doesn’t deny the middle school schedule is challenging.

“The schedule today for a middle school student is more rigorous than it was just a few years ago,” he said. “Our kids are tired when they get home.”

But, he said, time is a “premium” component, and under the old schedule, teachers spent part of their day supervising students instead of delivering instruction.

At minimum, educators have five hours – 300 minutes – to teach students in grades two through 12 and four hours, or 240 minutes, for those in kindergarten and first grade, according to the state’s definition of a full day of student attendance.

How schools spend those minutes vary.

The Illinois State Board of Education collects data on how many minutes per day school districts devote to the core subjects – math, science, English and social science – at third, sixth and eighth grades.

Statewide data spanning 15 years show the minutes spent on the core subjects at the grade levels have increased by up to seven minutes or decreased by as much as five minutes from 1998 to 2012.

In addition to providing instruction in the core subjects, school officials said Illinois schools must meet physical education requirements and carve out time for other subjects – art and music, for example – as well as make time for other necessities, such as lunch.

“Time is always the biggest factor in schools,” said Brad Newkirk, chief academic officer for Batavia Public School District 101.

To maximize that finite resource, he said, teachers can do cross-curriculum work. For example, he said, if more science instruction is needed, teachers could use scientific content while teaching reading skills.

According to 2012 data, Batavia third-graders receive about an hour of instruction in math, 27 minutes in science and social science, 167 minutes in English/language arts.

Other local school districts also spend more time on English than on other subjects. Third-graders in Geneva School District 304 and Kaneland School District 302 get about 160 minutes of instruction a day, and St. Charles School District 303 third-graders get about 154 minutes, according to 2012 data.

Emphasis on English – especially at the elementary level – is common because literacy is a foundation skill, educators said.

“We spend a lot of time making sure students are learning to read, so they can read to learn in those core subjects,” Newkirk said.

District 303 was criticized this year when adjustments to the middle school schedule resulted in the end of a 90-minute literacy block. The language arts class now is 52 minutes, as are the other classes at the St. Charles middle schools.

Morrill said changes in teaching methods, as well as opportunities for middle schoolers to learn French or Spanish, support the elimination of the literacy block.

“Today, all content-area teachers are responsible for it in their discipline,” Morrill said. “All teachers are more dialed into literacy standards.”

Additionally, the principal said, the revised schedule provides opportunities for struggling students to get support without missing class time.

“We are able to provide – during the day – timely interventions to kids who have gaps in their skill base,” Morrill said.

By the numbers

According to the 2012 Illinois District Report Card, this is the time – minutes per day – devoted to teaching the core subjects at third grade. 

Math

• 60 minutes – Batavia Public School District 101

• 60 minutes – Geneva School District 304

• 60 minutes – Kaneland School District 302

• 50 minutes – St. Charles School District 303

• 61 minutes – State 

Science

• 27 minutes – Batavia Public School District 101

• 45 minutes – Geneva School District 304

• 24 minutes – Kaneland School District 302

• 30 minutes – St. Charles School District 303

• 31 minutes – State

English/language arts

• 167 minutes – Batavia Public School District 101

• 160 minutes – Geneva School District 304

• 160 minutes – Kaneland School District 302

• 154 minutes – St. Charles School District 303

• 143 minutes – State

Social science

• 27 minutes – Batavia Public School District 101

• 45 minutes – Geneva School District 304

• 24 minutes – Kaneland School District 302

• 30 minutes – St. Charles School District 303

• 30 minutes – State

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