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Seven-period middle school day gains fans in Hillsborough

RIVERVIEW

Year by year, the chorus and orchestra have been growing smaller at Giunta Middle School.

The problem isn't a lack of popularity; students at the school say they love music and other elective courses.

But tough state rules have forced them into remedial classes if they don't pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and the school district has encouraged others to take an academic support class to boost middle-achieving students' skills.

At least 300 of Giunta's 1,180 students have been diverted from arts courses and other electives in recent years, said principal Arlene Castelli.

This fall, all of that could change. Officials say they're planning to alter the daily schedule for district middle schools in August, from six 60-minute periods to seven periods of 50 minutes — the same schedule magnet schools already follow.

The move will give all students access to elective classes and save $10 million a year compared to the cost of hiring more teachers to comply with the state class-size amendment, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said at a workshop last month. Some teachers face more paperwork and class preparation, but the number of teaching minutes per day will not change.

"I'll get a lot of kids back who I've lost to intensive courses," said Giunta chorus teacher Meredith Scribner. "I'm actually very excited about that."

Three years ago, high school teachers packed a School Board meeting to protest a similar change, saying it would take away a planning period and add to their workload.

In both cases, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers' Association union has opposed the move. But this time, there's far less heat around the issue, said union president Jean Clements.

"I have talked to a number of teachers who think going to a seven-period day will be better for students," she said. "The communication (from the district) has been much better than the last time, and that has helped too."

Middle school teachers will lose 10 minutes of planning time, but they won't lose a whole preparation period, as many high school teachers did, Clements said.

And such changes are good for kids, especially the ones who are struggling with tougher academic and social challenges between elementary and high school, said Castelli, the principal at Giunta.

"It's a tough transition," she said. "I think that finding some kind of passion and clicking with a teacher who's not standing over them, it just makes them feel better about themselves."

Castelli said the schedule change will allow her to distribute special-needs students more evenly when they're interspersed within the general student population.

And with more students taking electives next year, she hopes to add Spanish classes to the list of options. Other electives are family and consumer sciences, business education and writing.

On a recent visit to the school, students were brainstorming solutions to math problems in their AVID class, an elective offered to middle-achieving students who aspire to go to college. Their teacher, Trinetta Williams, told every student to be prepared to ask a thoughtful question.

"If you're in a group with someone else who has the same question as you, you need a backup question," she said. "In life, you sometimes need a backup plan."

Students in her class have fewer chances for arts or PE, and several said they liked the idea of an extra period for more electives.

"If it's something you enjoy, then it's really a good thing," said 14-year-old Lee Ann Erazo. "It is a good idea to have a break in the day."

Ceff Rodriguez, 13, said his schoolwork benefits from blowing on the trumpet every day in band class.

"It makes me a lot more calm," he said. "It's a chance to be free and have fun."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Seven-period middle school day gains fans in Hillsborough 02/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2010 3:30am]

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