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At Chesapeake High, excitement is building for new 4-period day


This year, Dan Ortmeyer will cram five weeks' worth of Shakespearean tragedy into three weeks for his students at Chesapeake High School.

That's just one example of how class time will be affected as the Anne Arundel County school begins its experiment with four 85-minute classes a day, compared to six classes lasting about 50 to 55 minutes each.

Mr. Ortmeyer isn't worried though. "Once they get into the second act of Macbeth, they're hooked."

In essence, Mr. Ortmeyer and the other Chesapeake High teachers will be trying to condense two semesters worth of work into one semester.

"Everybody must keep in mind that it's new, it's different, and it's going to be difficult at first," he said. "We'll be learning as

much as the students will be learning."

Will students have a hard time with the accelerated pace? "You also have to remember that high school students can do a heck of a lot more than they think they can," Mr. Ortmeyer said. "They're more artistic and more capable than they know."

Under the new system, courses once spread over a year will be taught in a semester; courses that used to last one semester will now be doubled up with other similar courses to fill the extended time period. Over four years, students will take 32 courses, instead of the current 24.

Most teachers at the school, but not all, voted in favor of the plan when it was proposed last spring by principal Harry Calender. But many wondered how it would work.

"I worried about it all summer," said Kay Sokoloff, a math teacher. "I think the overall anxiety level among the staff has dropped now that we've had a chance to meet teachers from other schools where it's worked. And the back-to-school night was one of the best we've ever had. We had more parents than ever, and they and the students were more attentive. We're getting excited about it."

The advantage to having four classes a day, as far as math teacher Barbara Ferger is concerned, "is that kids can take more than four math classes -- oh yeah!"

"I told the ninth-graders at back-to-school night that I love algebra and that I hope they will learn to love algebra," she said. "They just looked at me."

But the longer class period will pose a challenge for teachers who prefer a lecture format, Ms. Ferger said.

"You're going to have to vary your approach to teaching," she said. "You have to think of the class period as four sections of about 20 minutes instead of one big block of time. The traditional lesson plan isn't going to make it."

Classes at the school will run from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 9:05 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and break for lunch at one of three designated times before the afternoon sessions begin.

The best part of the plan, Mr. Calender says, is that students will have a chance to take a better variety of classes. The four-period day schedule allows the school to offer students a chance to earn 32 credits -- eight more than are required for graduation. Under the six classes a day plan, students have fewer chances to take elective courses.

The students and teachers at Chesapeake won't be alone in their experiment. Other schools around the state are watching closely. North Carroll High School in Carroll County will make the switch Sept. 7, while two other schools in Carroll County are considering going to four periods next fall. One school in Harford County was considering changing to four periods, but the idea was voted down by teachers last year.

Having made the commitment, and with school set to start in two days, teachers at Chesapeake have been working furiously on their lesson plans and their positive attitudes. "You have to get pumped up for the students," said Ms. Ferger.

"Right now we're scared because we can't find anything to fix," said Mr. Calender. "We already know the teachers are going to be very tired at the end of the first semester, and so will the students. But I think people who are concerned about the drop in student grades we've seen will be pleasantly surprised. There are going to be some weak points in the plan -- we may find that certain classes will have to be taught in shorter periods -- but even the teachers who voted against the change are starting to come around."

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