First, some background information. As our school district grapples with massive budget cuts, like other districts across the country, we seem to be approaching a solution in the form of closing one of our district’s four school buildings. This would result in some shuffling of grade levels between the remaining buildings and some interesting organizational challenges. The most likely option has the 7th and 8th graders moving up to our high school building while the 3rd through 6th graders take over the middle school.
There are some valid concerns being raised about how to integrate the younger students into the high school environment. Some parents have expressed concerns at having 7th graders in contact with high schoolers during the school day, so some folks are thinking of ways to isolate the younger students in their own parts of the building. This would mean rearranging classroom assignments to allow for a middle school hex (or two) separate from spaces used by the high schoolers.
While some people are not too concerned, saying that we have done this before when the middle school was under construction and that in past years our HS building held twice as many students as it does now, I see some real problems ahead for our science department, at least, if we continue with our current model of how we educate students. The most obvious issue is that of appropriate lab space. How can we expect the incoming 7th and 8th grade science teachers to teach science in just any classroom space? Will we ask them to leave behind their excellent science labs at the middle school and move to a math or English classroom at the high school?
At the bare minimum, a science classroom should have a sink and an eyewash station. There are five classrooms that I know of at the high school that meet this description, three of which are currently used full-time by the three science teachers, one of which is a shared chemistry lab, and one that is used for safe chemical and equipment storage separate from student access.
Clearly we have some limited options as to where to put the two incoming science teachers in our building. We can fit one of them into the chemistry lab, although there is only room for about 20 student desks since the room was not built as a lecture room. There’s no Smartboard or projector there either. We could clear out the science storeroom and create a new classroom there, but where would our chemicals and equipment go that would still be easily accessible to teachers during class yet secure enough to limit student access? The third option would somehow rotate the 5 science teachers between the three or four classrooms on a period-by-period basis, if they all follow the same bell schedule.
I suspect this last option is the most viable, although there are not enough class periods in the day to allow 5 teachers with 6 classes each to share four science classrooms with only one plan period per teacher (see here). We could, I suppose, give teachers two plan periods and pile the students into larger classes, which is a horrible idea when it comes to teaching science effectively through labs and hands-on experimentation.
Now for my solution to the problem: What if we could schedule classes so that they are only in the science hex when they were doing labs? That’s really what we are using the special facilities and equipment for. The rest of the time they could be…..somewhere else. Now here’s the interesting part: what if the “somewhere else” meant ONLINE? That could potentially free up our students, particularly the older students in upper-level sciences, to be ANYWHERE during the school day. In such a scenario, the search for classroom space becomes only a minor annoyance rather than a major headache.
I think that students could spend a couple days a week in the actual classroom for lab work and face-to-face discussion, and the rest of the time be in the library, at home, or some other classroom while they learn from the online coursework established by their teacher. Simple tools like Edmodo, Moodle, and others allow for creation of a shared online learning space for nearly every class that can be taught at the high school level. Students can complete learning exercises, take quizzes, chat with each other and the teacher, and create digital projects together without even going to school.
A lot of work and thought still needs to be done to come to an effective solution to our building’s challenges, but maybe some sort of blended online and face-to-face learning environment is what our school requires to best meet student needs and the harsh realities of the looming budget cuts.