By Collin Lueck
Major changes at Merrill High School this year are already paying measurable dividends in terms of student attendance and class failure rates.
With significant drops in pupil count and staff numbers, the Flex 14 schedule in place at MHS since 2009, was no longer working, Principal Shannon Murray announced last school year. Murray outlined a plan to introduce a more traditional eight-period schedule that would also feature a daily “flex” period, retaining some of the variety that students valued in the Flex 14 schedule.
“We looked at how can we make an alternative work that best captures some of the good things of (Flex 14) but is cleaner and more structured,” Murray said. “Thankfully, we have really good data coming out of it. The early measures are really positive, so it’s been a very smooth transition. People have settled in very nicely, it feels like we’ve been doing it a lot longer than we have.”
Along with the new master schedule and flex period, MHS has rolled out a number of other changes including academic and career planning, incentive based study spaces, freshman supported personal learning times, professional learning communities for staff and revamped response to intervention.
“We haven’t changed our grading scale, we haven’t changed our curriculum and we haven’t changed our expectations,” Murray said, “we’ve changed the stucture by which those things operate.”
The new schedule features eight, 45-minute period. Third period is the flex period; with academic and career planning on Mondays and student choices for Tuesday through Friday. Every Friday, the following week’s flex period options are made available to students. Students can also see if they’ve been “hard requested” by a teacher to come in for extra help.
During the flex period, students can chose from a slate of enrichment activities such as fencing or yoga, attend a club meeting, seek academic assistance, or just find a quiet place to study. If they fail to make a selection, they will be placed in activities.
“We want people to move and go try different things,” Murray said. “The message is, pick your own activity or someone will pick it for you.”
Clubs and student-led groups are using the flex period for monthly meetings, which allows more students to attend. The FFA Club, for example, had more than 80 students attend its December meeting, a significant increase over when meetings were held in the evenings.
The Flex 14 schedule offered a great deal of choices to students, but required a higher level of responsibility from them as well. Some students flourished, while others took advantage of the system by skipping classes.
In the first quarter of the 2016-17 school year, MHS recorded 11,642 unexcused absentee periods. Under the new schedule, that number dropped to 4,777 in the first quarter of the current school year – a very small percentage of the total 288,000 periods.
“It’s way easier to enforce because students are all coming and going at the same times,” Murray said. “There’s nowhere to hide. We know who’s supposed to be there, everywhere, all the time.”
Juniors and seniors have off campus privileges for lunch – with good attendance.
“We haven’t really changed any policies, just enforcement and added an attendance piece to it,” Murray said.
The number of students with perfect attendance has also taken a significant jump. After the first quarter of last school year, just three MHS students had perfect attendance. This year, by the close of the first quarter, 53 students had perfect attendance.
Course failure rates have shown impressive drops this year as well.
Looking at a failure rate comparison for all courses, MHS students were failing classes at a rate of 13.3 percent at the first progress report of the 2016-17 school year. That percentage dropped to 10.6 percent this school year. First quarter grades last year showed a 5.6 percent failure rate, which improved to 4.8 percent this year.
“If attendance is up and more kids are getting passing grades, the logic is that should start showing up on standardized test scores pretty soon,” Murray said. “Staff can better recognize kids that are struggling and make sure they are offered the help they need.”
Study space choices for study halls are available to students who have good grades and attendance. Students with grades lower than a C on their progress reports or report cards are placed in a structured, guided study hall. Students with no grade or attendance issues can chose less structured study environments.
Starting with this year’s freshman class, Merrill High School has increased graduation requirements by two credits. The new schedule and structure should help student meet the new requirements, Murray noted.
“If you put a structure in place that is supporting kids and fewer kids are failing, we think we’re in a pretty good place to maintain a strong graduation rate even under the increased requirements.”