The Pulaski County Special School District is moving toward a class schedule at its four middle schools in which math and English/language arts courses will each be 80 minutes per day, five days a week.
District leaders met with parents at Maumelle and Robinson middle schools Thursday and will do the same with parents at Sylvan Hills and Mills middle schools this Thursday to explain the schedule made up of two 80-minute class periods and five 42-minute sessions.
Also presented to parents last week were assurances that academically capable seventh- and eighth-graders will be able to take algebra I and algebra II in middle school as they have in the past -- contrary to earlier directives from the district that the practice would end.
In this just-ended school year, the middle schools had seven periods of just under 50 minutes each per day with a 30-minute advisory period.
"We're transitioning to this to give the kids more time," Deputy Superintendent Alesia Smith told parents at Robinson about moving to longer periods for math and English.
Elementary school pupils are getting 90 minutes of math and English, and that is "chopped in half" with the move to middle school, Smith said.
The new 80-minute blocks "are going to do so much for our young people. It's going to give kids more opportunities to work collaboratively. They are going to have time in math to work with manipulatives, and the teacher is going to have time to give them feedback so they can talk about what their strengths are or the areas they need to work on," she said.
"We are not in good shape," Superintendent Charles McNulty told the parents about the achievement level at Robinson, which has a C grade from the state based largely on results from the 2019 ACT Aspire tests.
Maumelle Middle also has a C grade, while Sylvan Hills and Mills middle schools received D's for the 2018-19 school year, the most recent year for which state grades are available.
McNulty, and secondary math and English lead instructional coaches Chastity McNeary and Tieryaa Metcalf, showed the ACT Aspire results for multiple years for Robinson. The math scores, in particular, showed declines between 2017 and 2019. The Aspire tests were not given to students in 2020 because the covid-19 pandemic resulted in closing schools to on-site instruction in March.
Results from the 2021 tests have not yet been released.
McNulty told the parents that a previously granted state waiver to the district allows the district to offer algebra courses in middle school, contrary to the district's earlier understanding of state directives.
Complaints and a petition from Robinson Middle School parents last month about the schedule and algebra course changes prompted the school district leaders to arrange the parent forums this month, even though the school year has ended for students.
"This schedule change is an attempt at a short-term fix to bump test scores with a 'teach to the test' focus and an attempt to force equity gap closure," said last month's letter signed by dozens of parents. "It is an attempt to manipulate numbers to make the administration look favorable. Instead, the root of the problem should be addressed."
The May letter also said "advanced math courses [such as] algebra 1 and 2 ... should be offered at all middle schools if students of appropriate achievement desire advancement."
The letter writers added that state education officials were not encouraging schools to move away from these courses in seventh and eighth grades.