Portland has the only school system in Maine with four high schools: Portland High School, Deering High School, Casco Bay High School and Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS). Over the years, each school has developed its own schedule.  As a result, the schools differ in the length of class periods, how often classes meet per week and even the duration of semesters. 

The different schedules reflect an overall philosophy that has pervaded the Portland Public Schools for nearly 20 years: the idea that each school should be managed independently. While such an environment can foster innovation, it also has resulted in competition and increased costs.

The financial crisis now facing Maine is forcing us to rethink how we run our schools. In the words of a Chinese proverb, we can “turn crisis into opportunity” by bringing more uniformity to Portland’s high school schedules in a way that maintains rich program offerings and does so more efficiently.

The High School Common Schedule Task Force has worked for the past three months to build a common schedule framework for the district. The task force of 28 includes parents, teachers and administrators. Our top priority is our students. Our second priority is to reduce costs and increase efficiency. 

During our discussions, we also added several other goals:

• Maintain low-enrolled courses (including some Advanced Placement courses) by combining classes or moving staff.

• Open PATHS to more Portland students.

• Create an opportunity for multilingual students to accelerate their learning.

• Accommodate the biorhythms/needs of teenagers by starting high school classes later in the day.

• Add a period at the beginning or end of the school day that allows students to take additional offerings such as music classes or remedial reading.

• Use the flexibility of the new schedule to allow high school students the opportunity to take college courses.

• Use the schedule to continue efforts to raise the high school completion rate.

• Allow each high school to maintain a unique culture.

Master schedules are incredibly complex. The basic variations include a traditional schedule of seven or eight periods meeting every day for 45 minutes and a block schedule with longer periods (usually 70 to 80 minutes) that meet on a semester basis or alternating days for an entire year.

The task force is recommending a blended schedule that takes advantage of each major model to maximize students’ learning opportunities. Some courses will last for a semester and others for a whole year. Some will meet daily and others on alternating days. The schedule allows each high school to design the bulk of the day – between 8:15 a.m. and 1:25 p.m. – to meet the needs of its building.

We’re recommending periods at the beginning and end of the day where we will schedule music activities such as chorus and band, special help for struggling students, additional class time for our immigrant students, and other activities. Those periods will allow for maximum flexibility, transition of students between schools and eliminate under-enrolled classes.

In order to provide for the flexibility necessary to coordinate the high school master schedule, we would switch the starting times with either the elementary or middle schools with the high schools. The research on a later start for high schools is compelling because it better suits the natural sleep cycle of adolescents. 

The task force’s draft framework will be presented to the Portland School Committee this month. In January, the high school principals will join me in presenting the framework throughout the city. We will collect public comment, make final revisions and present the final framework to the School Committee on Feb. 24.  

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on theforecaster.net. He can be reached at [email protected], and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.