In Nashville, a Middle School Adds More than Hours to the School Day

November 3, 2014

A creative school schedule focuses on when and how Students learn

When Principal Ted Murcray was offered a chance to join an ambitious project to expand learning time for students in his middle school, he threw a little cold water on the idea. “I’m not sure we’re the school you’re looking for,” he told Laura Middleton from the National Center on Time & Learning.

Already busy developing strategies to elevate achievement at the low-preforming school, Murcray didn’t see how he could also add 300 hours of class time—without a dollar more to pay for staff.

Today, the staff at Nashville’s I. T. Creswell Arts Magnet Middle School is ironing out the details of an expanded learning initiative that will add all those hours—lengthening each school day by one hour and 15 minutes. But the change is not primarily about time. It’s about fundamentally redefining how students learn.

Creswell is doing that through a creative (and challenging) schedule. “We’re not just making our classes longer,” Murcray says. “We’re rethinking how we teach and how we structure our day.”

Time for Change

Creswell is undergoing this overhaul as part of the TIME Collaborative, a multi-year initiative to help 19 schools in five states develop high-quality, sustainable expanded learning time. The collaborative—a partnership of the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time & Learning—provides technical assistance to help the selected schools add 300 hours to the school year. Four schools in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are participating.

Creswell is a magnet school for students who want to focus on art; they attend two arts classes each semester, rather than the maximum of one at other Metro Nashville schools. Seventy-five percent of its 450 students receive free or reduced price lunch.

Middleton showed Murcray how expanding time for learning supports his mission to boost student performance. “The changes he wanted to implement were in line with more and better learning time,” says Middleton, the Tennessee director for NCTL. “It’s not just about adding time. It’s about utilizing the time that you have well.”

The principal convened a design team for the project: the assistant principal, dean of students, counselor and drama teacher. Among their first tasks, he says, was “talking with teachers about what exactly has to be taught in your subject area? How much time do you need and how often do you have to meet?”

One consensus: The standard practice of grouping kids of different skill levels into class periods of one hour each didn’t work well. Some students need more help; others are ready to move on to advanced work. “But we put everyone in class for the same amount of time,” Murcray says.

The solution: structuring class time around “blocks” and “skinnies.”

Making it Happen

Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, Creswell students will start class 15 minutes earlier in the morning (at 7:45) and end classes one hour later in the afternoon (at 4:00). For each subject, they will be scheduled for 40-minute skinnies or 85-minute blocks (two skinnies plus five minutes).

What’s critical about this time change is that Creswell is using it to create more personalized, student-center learning.  For example: Sixth grader Milo Logan is a math whiz. He needs only a skinny to cover basic concepts. He might get another skinny late in the day with different students to learn and drill advanced math. (Milo loves this idea.) Other students from the first group might reconvene for more individual attention on areas of struggle. With this new schedule, teachers will be better able to meet the specific needs of students across levels and interests.

The blocks support the school’s focus on project-based learning. Counselor Shawn Jenkins tells students that the blocks will give them large chunks of time to make headway on projects. That might include working with the librarian for research or preparing for an upcoming art show. In other words, Jenkins says, “more opportunity for project-based learning” tailored to their interests.

Seventh-grader Chelby Woods likes the block idea for another reason: “I have test anxiety,” she says, and the extra time should help her boost her performance.

Drama teacher Elizabeth Lybarger likes that the new schedule gives teachers two planning slots a day (one to develop their own plans and the other to review student progress with teams of teachers) and added professional development opportunities (including teachers sitting in on each other’s classes and giving feedback).

Teachers will “have more time vested in the students,” Lybarger says, through more individual attention in class, time to review student data during planning periods and “more professional development and collaborative opportunities with other teachers.”

The longer day will also allow for more specialized classes. (Think “ballet” rather than just “dance.”) These opportunities will be woven throughout the day rather than tacked on at the end, where they might be viewed as just something extra.

Adjustments for All

How will Creswell make this happen while keeping the same number of teachers working the same number of hours (7.5) per day? Through flexible scheduling. Some teachers will start first thing in the morning and leave a bit sooner than they do now; some will start and end 90 minutes later, to cover the extended class day in the afternoon; and some will work the entire class day for four days a week.

“The biggest challenge will be the teacher schedules,” says counselor Jenkins.

The students are not yet thrilled. “At first I was like, ‘Hmmm,’ ” says Chelby, the seventh-grader. Most of her fellow students “don’t really agree with it.” (The school just began its formal communications about the plan with parents, and will do the same with students soon.) 

Aside from the instinctive objection to a longer school day, the students have practical concerns. Getting out of school later will interfere with afterschool activities. Chelby says she and her family “are still trying to figure out” how she will get to dance class, gymnastics and church after school. Milo, the sixth-grader, might be able to move his guitar lessons, but he can’t make his swim team change its practice time.

Also, many Creswell students rely on Nashville city buses to get home. The school is working with the transportation agency to coordinate the bus schedules with the new school schedule.

Such nuts-and-bolts issues will be addressed along the way. Says Milo of his fellow students, “I’m pretty sure they’re gonna get used to it sooner or later.”

For teachers, Lybarger says, “The biggest change is the paradigm shift of thinking.”  

What’s exciting for her is what that shift means for kids: “We’re developing a plan to build a new school day so we can create world changers with an arts perspective.”

“It’s really about dreaming” Middleton says, “and re-imagining what the school day could be.”


Patrick Boyle is The Forum for Youth Investment's Senior Director of Communications. As a journalist, he specializes in child and family issues.


Patrick Boyle