Changes to Cherry Hill high schools' long-standing scheduling system planned for the fall are drawing opposition from parents and students in the well-regarded Camden County district.
The plan is for modified block scheduling, with fewer classes a day and longer periods.
Administrators say the changes would mean enhanced instruction, extended teaching opportunities, more students taking additional classes, and a lunch period for all.
Several students and parents, however, are not so sure. There would be less instructional time overall under the plan, and they argue that the revolving schedule might prove troublesome for special-needs students, student musicians, and students who have after-school jobs.
They say they do not see the need for the changes in the high-performing schools and think the district has given parents and students too little say in drafting the policy, which would affect more than 3,700 students.
"They're trying to convince everyone," said Debbie Schmidt, a parent. "They don't want to hear, 'I think we should rethink this.' "
Two years in the making, the proposed "hybrid" schedule would do away with the current eight instructional periods a day that last 44 minutes each. Instead, classes in each subject would meet four times in a six-day rotation. Three classes would be 52 minutes long, one 80 minutes.
Science courses would meet for one 104-minute class, two 52-minute classes, and one 80-minute class. In place of the current four lunch periods, during which 17 percent of students take additional classes, all students are to have back-to-back lunch and break periods of 25 minutes each.
The district committee that crafted the new scheduling looked at other districts.
One of them, Ridgewood High School in Bergen County, has long had its own version of a modified block schedule that includes longer instructional periods in a longer teaching day but that differs from Cherry Hill's plan in other ways.
"With longer periods of instructional time, you get to do things in a little more depth," Ridgewood Superintendent Daniel Fishbein said.
With a rotating schedule, students do not have every subject every day, so they do not have homework in every subject in a given night, he said.
Ridgewood students score higher than those at the two Cherry Hill schools on SATs but not on Advanced Placement tests.
The principals of Cherry Hill's two general high schools - there is also an alternative high school - say the new schedule would be an improvement.
"Every teacher will have a lab period. You can do more," said John O'Breza, principal of Cherry Hill High School East.
Despite the longer periods, there would be an 11 percent decrease in instructional minutes for all subjects but science, according to the district website. In science, there would be a 7 percent loss. But supporters of the plan say gains will offset that.
"We believe the quality of the instruction that can go on with the longer periods more than makes up for the loss of minutes," Cherry Hill West principal Joseph Meloche said.
Because it is an administrative matter rather than a curriculum change, the policy is not planned for a Board of Education vote, board president Seth Klukoff said. He said the board had asked questions about the proposed scheduling but had not taken a formal position.
The Cherry Hill Education Association, though not actively opposing the change, does not support it because the administration has not clarified how teaching staff might be reallocated under the new policy, said Martin Sharofsky, president of the union local. It is unclear how the plan would affect staffing.
Speaking as a former educator, Sharofsky disagreed that the new policy would not result in curriculum change, given the decrease in teaching time. He called for another year to work on the policy.
"Don't rush into it. Do it right," he said.
Jeff Killion, a calculus and functions honors teacher at East, said he and some of his fellow math teachers were concerned about their students' ability to retain material when their classes cease to meet daily.
He said he was also concerned about the projected 11 percent loss of teaching time.
"That's almost a month of class time," Killion said.
Some say the Board of Education should intervene.
"It seems like the schedule change for September 2012 is premature, and more discussion about how the actual process will work is warranted," parent Linda Siracusa said. She said she would like the change to be subject to a Board of Education vote.
The change is to go into effect in the fall, but O'Breza and Meloche said some details were still being worked out.
O'Breza said the schools were considering scheduling "rotating" music lessons during the 50 minutes of lunch and break and limiting the time students can leave other classes for the lessons. Critics, however, say they believe it will be harder to accommodate music students' needs.
Schmidt said she worried that special-needs students such as her son would be unable to handle the proposed variable scheduling.
"The daily inconsistent periods will be a problem for many students like him and other students with challenges," she said.
Jonah Levinson, a Cherry Hill East junior, said he hoped to get a job next year to save for college but feared the variable schedule would restrict him.
Greg Greenberg, another East junior, said he collected more than 300 signatures on a print petition and more than 100 on his online petition opposing the proposed schedule shortly after the changes were aired last month for students. A Facebook page he started on the schedule change has had more than 400 guests, some in favor of the proposal and others against it.
Among Greenberg's concerns are that students would be less prepared for AP tests because they would have less class time. He also was skeptical that the district could afford the extra teachers the administration says might be needed.
The framers of the new scheduling predict more students would take an eighth course, which would require additional staff.