At the south end of Kalispell, the electronic marquee for the Econo Lodge reads, “Flathead High School freshman academy is unfair.” It’s the most visible expression of a group of parents who feel freshman academic schedules unfairly favor Glacier High School students.
At question are the schools’ freshman academy programs. Introduced in the Kalispell school district for the first time this past academic year, administrators say the academies are meant to help freshmen cope with a new environment and improve their chances of academic success.
Teams of teachers are assigned to the same groups of students for the entire year, with all freshmen taking the same core classes – English, math, science, health and 21st century literacies – within their groups and in a continuous block. Research suggests creating these small communities within the schools leads to reduced truancy and discipline issues, steady or improved grade-point averages and better preparation for the 10th grade.
“It provides an environment where the kids feel more connected to the teachers, and likewise, the teachers feel more connected to the kids,” Dan Zorn, district assistant superintendent, said. “It also provides a better safety net, especially for those kids who are transitioning from smaller schools in the district or are struggling with their classes.”
A handful of parents, though, say the program – because of the way it has been implemented – is actually hurting freshman grades at Flathead. At an informational meeting last week between those parents, school board members and administrators, discussion was often heated and emotional as the parents vented their concerns.
At Glacier, freshmen students have their four core classes, or the freshmen academy, in the morning, then have lunch followed by three electives; at Flathead, the schedule is opposite, with three morning electives and freshman academy post-lunch.
Some parents say the scheduling difference unfairly disadvantages students at Flathead, because they’re more likely to miss their core classes for extracurricular activities than their Glacier peers. Students often leave school early to travel and participate in activities like sports or academic teams.
“I think we need to look at if we’re setting these Flathead kids up to fail,” Nancee Olszewski, a Flathead parent who first brought the concern to the school district’s attention, said. “Whether it was intentional or not, this is not an equitable situation between the two schools.”
Parents at the meeting pushed for the district to swap the academies each semester, so both schools would have a morning academy and afternoon academy for part of the year. The district had originally planned on switching annually, but before this controversy arose, decided there was no reason to do so because studies didn’t favor morning or afternoon learning times.
“We never deliberately chose one school or schedule over the other,” Darlene Schottle, district superintendent, said. “We’ve regarded them both as equally good, and decided there wasn’t a reason to go through the scheduling difficulty to switch.”
Administrators explained that scheduling for the coming academic year began in February and is still ongoing, making it impossible to change for next year at this late of a date. They added that swapping at each semester would also cause scheduling nightmares.
“There are about 640 freshmen students between the two schools,” Zorn said. “Every time adjustment to the schedule – even to one class – affects other classes and other kids. It’s not as easy as it seems.”
It’s not possible to provide freshman academy at the same time at both schools and still continue the VoAg classes for freshmen or have sufficient staffing, he added.
School officials and teachers agreed with the parents that absences for activities are a difficult issue, especially at a school where students frequently travel long distances, but stressed that it was an issue at both schools and across all grades. “This isn’t isolated to just Flathead freshmen, and switching academies isn’t going to make that issue go away,” Zorn said.
In response to earlier concerns from teachers and parents, the district has already changed the Flathead freshmen academy slightly for next year, moving the core down a period so that it will run from third to sixth. The new program breaks up the block with lunch and avoids the seventh period where students are most likely to miss for activities, Zorn said. The school is also considering rotating those core classes every few weeks, so that no one class is missed more than another.
The parents group, though, said while the changes were an improvement, they still didn’t change the discrepancy between the two schools. “If the freshman class at Flathead is missing 20 hours a year of their core classes while a Glacier student only misses three hours of core classes, that’s an unequal impact,” parent Joe Matulevich said.
To Zorn, the parent concerns are more of an issue of release time for activities than a freshman academy problem, and possibly an unforeseen growing pain of having two high schools.
“Underneath a lot of the concerns we hear is the worry that we’re not going to provide both schools with equal opportunities to be quality, successful high schools,” he said. “We’re working hard to achieve that equality, but the community is still transitioning and there are lots of different perceptions.”
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