With the sixth Howard County high school now having switched to a four-period class schedule at the start of this school year, teachers and students are struggling to decide whether the change is worth it.
While most applaud the instructional benefits of a 90-minute class, they're unhappy with two other products of the switch: substantially larger classes and an overall reduction in teaching time.
"I've lost 36 hours of instructional time per year," said Mount Hebron High School science teacher Ron Klingner. "I'm being asked to teach the same material in less time to more students. It can't be done without a loss for the students."
Despite these concerns, the four-period day has its admirers -- and new state rules requiring students to earn more academic credits for graduation have left the school system with few scheduling options.
"It's accomplished what I set out to do, which is to increase student performance and permit students the option to take more classes," said Eugene Streagle, the county's new director of high schools.
Mr. Streagle pioneered the four-period day three years ago while he was principal of Howard High School, which along with Atholton High School first adopted it in 1993.
Two county high schools, Centennial and Wilde Lake, have not made the switch but may do so in the future.
Under the new schedule, students at the other six county high schools earn more credits while taking only four classes per day instead of the traditional six or seven.
The schedules at Atholton, Glenelg, Hammond, Mount Hebron and Oakland Mills high schools permit students to earn up to seven credits per year by alternating three 90-minute classes one day with three other classes the next. Pupils also take one shorter class lasting about an hour each day.
Howard High employs a variation of the four-period schedule frequently likened to a college schedule, in which students take four 86-minute classes every day for a semester. They take a different set of four classes the next semester.
Under both models, teachers are assigned one less class. This means that instead of instructing five out of six periods, they teach five out of seven periods under the alternating-day model, and three out of four under Howard High's semester model.
The combination of the county's rapidly rising student enrollment and the new schedule has led to six to eight additional students in academic classes at all six high schools. Although academic classes are limited to 34 pupils, classes that used to have 25 students now often have 32 or 33, teachers and administrators say.
"It's not [as] easy to get the individual attention," said Howard High School junior Sharra Jenkins, 15. "There's a lot of people in ++ every class competing for the teacher's time."
The class-size problem could be solved by hiring more teachers, but the school system -- already strapped for money -- doesn't have the funds. Given the limited number of teachers, the high schools must choose between having the larger classes or limiting the number of classes each student may take.
"Class size is always a disadvantage, and we're trying our best to alleviate that problem," said school board Chairwoman Susan Cook.
The other challenge posed by the four-period day is how to pare down the high school curriculum. More classes are being taught in the same overall number of classroom hours, reducing each class by 30 to 40 hours over a year.
"I know I cost some kids' grades on the Advanced Placement physics exam last year. We all did," said Mount Hebron physics teacher David Oppelt. "It got toward the end of the year and I hadn't had time to get through all of the material. So I guessed which material would be on the exam and I was wrong."
Nevertheless, many teachers are enthusiastic about how the 90-minute periods have given them a chance to reinvigorate their instructional styles. Instead of being limited to one activity for 45 minutes, they're able to schedule several activities during a period and complete an entire lesson.
"At least every 30 minutes I try to do something else with the students so they're not falling asleep," said Atholton psychology and sociology teacher Jennifer Girvin. "It's better learning because it's so multifaceted. It's a comprehensive lesson in one day."
The 90-minute periods also mean fewer class changeovers, resulting in less time in crowded hallways and less lost time at the beginning and end of classes.
Teachers have a 90-minute planning period every day, giving them time for grading and class preparation. However, some teachers privately describe the planning time as a waste.
"I don't have enough to do in those 90 minutes so sometimes I just drive out and do my errands," said one high school teacher, who asked not to be identified.
For students, the new schedule means organization and attendance have become a must. If a student misses a day of school or misses an assignment, it's easier to fall behind quickly.
"Missing one day is equivalent to missing two or three," said Hammond sophomore Lisa Laanisto, whose school began the four-period schedule this year.
Some students acknowledge they and others have trouble concentrating for the entire period, particularly if the teachers don't vary their instructional style.
"I get bored and restless sometimes," said Mount Hebron junior Sampson Kyere, 16.
A definitive evaluation of how the new schedule affects student achievement aren't expected until later this year.
An analysis of the results of the new schedule during its first year at Atholton and Howard high schools -- the 1992-1993 academic year -- showed slightly better attendance and grade-point averages. Encouraged, school officials hope some version of the four-period schedule will be used at all county high schools.
The principals of the two high schools scheduled to open next year -- Long Reach and River Hill highs -- are seriously considering a four-period schedule, Mr. Streagle said.
Moreover, Wilde Lake and Centennial high schools -- which use modified six-period schedules to permit students to take additional classes -- also will consider making the switch soon, he said.
"I think we'll eventually move to a more singular model schedule for every school," Mr. Streagle said.