Elementary Schedules: The Compromise

By Jason Barney of Gilbert Music Matters

School Board Meeting for Elementary Schedules: Tuesday, April 13, 7:00 PM.

On January 26 and February 28, 2010, the District Administration presented to the School Board a proposed alteration to the elementary schedule. The unintended consequence was a significant reduction in Band and Strings instruction time. We all acknowledged the clear benefits of the new schedule and numerous parents, principals, and classroom teachers spoke passionately and articulately about those benefits. However, there was also an amazing ground swell of dismay at the reductions to Band and Strings and an outpouring of support for preserving these programs. In response to that, the board directed the administration to go back and seek opportunities achieve the benefits of the new schedule while minimizing impacts to Band and Strings. That directive resulted in three meetings with administration and stakeholders:

  • Dr. Allison (Superintendent), Barb VeNard (Assistant Superintendent)
  • Missy Udall, Dr. Karen Coleman, Becky Henderson, Jason Martin (Pilot Principals)
  • April Gowens (Kindergarten Teacher)
  • Craig Elliott (5th Grade Teacher)
  • Caryn Anson and Paul Edwards (Physical Education Department Chairs)
  • Brenda Koerselman (Library Department Chair)
  • Debra Garza (Art Department Chair)
  • Lee Meschino (General Music Department Chair)
  • Jenny Nichols, Brad Seagraves (Strings and Band Department Chairs)
  • Melissa Smith (Speech)
  • Rachael Weers-Thornton (Parent)
  • Jason Barney (Gilbert Music Matters/Parent)

It is with mixed emotions that I present the following summary of those meetings and ask parents and teachers to support the resultant compromise. Let me be very clear at the outset. From a strictly music perspective, I do not like this compromise. And, I am certain that many parents and teachers will not like it either as it relates to music impacts. Nevertheless, it is an improvement over the original five day proposal. In addition, in a five day schedule context, this is the best case scenario I can see for Band and Strings given the myriad of other factors that needed to be accommodated. Had we taken an "only music matters" view, we would not have agreed to this compromise and would still be locked in very difficult and emotional debate. However, for us the purpose of these meetings was twofold:

  1. Advocate as aggressively as possible to preserve the quality of our Band and Strings program.
  2. Seek sincerely to understand the needs and constraints of all the other stakeholders and balance our advocacy with an attitude of fairness and respect.

We strongly prefer the six day schedule for the benefit all special areas classes. However, the School Board direction to the stakeholder group was not to debate six day versus five day or to find ways to solve the various schedule problems within a six day schedule. Rather, the direction was to explore five day alternatives that do not reduce Band and Strings as much as the original proposal. So again, this compromise is an improvement for Band and Strings over the original proposal. Unfortunately, the five day schedule by definition compresses the amount of time available to special area classes. Thus, we believe this is the most improvement we could achieve within the rigid constraints of a five day schedule combined with a sincere effort to seek balance for our fellow special area classes. It is from that context that I support this compromise and ask parents and teachers to join me in this support. We will present this compromise at the school board meeting on Tuesday, April 13.

A thorough explanation of the process, criteria, and compromise follows.

The Survey

Gilbert Music Matters conducted an online survey during this time. The results help capture general feeling of parents, teachers, and other members of the community. Although survey results are always subject to scrutiny and interpretation, I will reference those them from time to time for emphasis. It is critical to note that 44% of the respondents felt that it is "Extremely Important" to fix the schedule and 27% feel it is somewhat important. My interpretation is that a vast majority (70%) think we need to fix the schedule. Therefore, not fixing the schedule is not an option.

How did we get to the compromise?

Before I explain the compromise, I'll explain how we got there including key constraints and considerations. Much of that (common prep time, study hall reduction, simplification and consistency, etc.) was articulated previously and can be found on our elementary schedules summary page. I'll focus here on criteria that emerged in the stakeholder discussions under the scrutiny of detailed pros and cons analysis.

Step One: Six Day Versus Five Day

The six day schedule that the district has used since the 1980's is by far the preferred schedule for all special areas. Not just for music, but PE, Art, and Library as well. Several variations of five day schedules have been proposed in addition to the original five day schedule presented to the board in January and February. All versions of five day schedules are a set back for all special areas to varying degrees. On the flip side, the six day schedule (as currently implemented) creates very real and challenging problems for classroom teachers and principals that are resolved by a five day schedule. In a nutshell, the six day is best for special area classes (PE, Music, Art, Library), the five day is best for everyone else. The five day provides significant benefits for classroom teachers and significant negative impacts for specials. As a result, the first hurdle to overcome is to decide whether or not the benefits of the five day merit the downsides created for specials. Feedback from the board, administration, principals, and classroom teachers seems to strongly suggest that the benefits of the five day outweigh the downsides to specials. Furthermore, the specific direction from the board in February seemed to be to make the five day work, but with less reduction to Band and Strings. Based on this we decided not to seek to retain the six day schedule in the stakeholder meetings. Instead, we explored several variations of a five day schedule.

483 survey respondents lean toward the six day schedule and 413 lean toward the five day schedule. Given the margin for error, I would call that pretty close to a split. It is also interesting to note that of the five possible answers to this question, the most common answer was "I don't have enough information to decide." That is informative because it underscores the complexity of the scheduling process and the difficulty of assessing the pros and cons either way. It would have been interesting to see how people would have responded had we clarified the question with "Five Day Causes Specials Reductions But Helps Classroom Teachers, Six Day Maintains Previous Levels for Specials." 

NOTE: Throughout this document, any reference to "Classroom Teachers" also includes ELL, Speech, Resource, ALP, and Reading teachers.

Step Two: Factors, Constraints, and Considerations

Each stakeholder group identified key goals. The total list of goals is long, complicated, and highly subject to nuance. However, below are the key goals we identified both in our first meeting and additional items that emerged as discussions progressed..

Classroom Teacher and Principal Goals

  • Do not reduce academic minutes.
  • Create an academic schedule that maximizes regular classroom instruction while maintaining the GPS philosophy of the importance of educating the whole child.
  • Maximize all instructional minutes. All minutes used for instruction (i.e. avoid wasteful inefficiencies such as excessive study hall time or transition time).
  • Reinstate specials for kindergarten.
  • Develop a schedule that provides consistency to allow for scheduling of ELL, ALP, Resource, and Speech. (Must meet Federal mandates.)
  • Retain Computer Tech Lab Instruction in the Specials Block
  • Common planning time for each grade level.
  • Predictable schedule.

Physical Education

  • Currently teaching significantly below standards and recommendations. Needs to get to state K-6 standards.
  • Wants equal time as other specials.
  • Group classes from same class (opposite of like instruments).

Band and Strings

  • See classes in small, like instrument classes, and in full ensemble classes each week.
  • 90 minutes per week, three times per week. Three classes per week is optimal for repetition.


  • Needs sixty minute block, not forty.
  • Group classes from same class (opposite of like instruments).
  • Keeping all classes rotating through the same lesson each week.
  • Time needed for managing art materials.


  • Daily open check-out time not just at lunch or recess for all students.
  • Group classes from same class (opposite of like instruments).
  • Needs library shelving time that is not dependent on volunteers.
  • Needs library management time.

General Music

  • See students as often as possible in, preferably 90 minutes per week.
  • See students in groups not larger than the largest class on campus.

Classroom Parent (Rachael Weers-Thornton)

  • Focus on the needs of the classroom teachers.
  • The current pilot is working well, why change it?
  • Retains specials for kindergartener.

Gilbert Music Matters (Jason Barney)

  • It would appear a cut to some degree is inevitable, just don't cut so drastically. Find a way for it to be more balanced so that Band and Strings, or any other subject for that matter, doesn't carry the bulk of the impact for bridging the gap.

Step 3: Scenarios

Many schedule scenarios were presented to the committee. All were a variation of the five day schedule for the reasons explained above.

  • Schedule 2.5: This is a slight variation to an alternative schedule proposed by the principals at the February board meeting. The original proposal significantly reduced Band and Strings. See chart below for detailed summary.
  • Schedule 2.6: This was proposed by Brad Segraves and Jenny Nichols as a variation to 2.5. It had like instrument groupings. Although a reduction from the six day, it had increased instructional time over the original proposal or 2.5. This would have been the preferred compromise for Band and Strings, but contained two flaws: First, the students were seen by like instruments, while all other specials preferred classroom groupings. Second, it did not include computer tech (explained below).
  • Schedule 2.7: 2.7 is a variation of 2.6 that was created in an attempt to meet the other specials desire to see students by classroom groups (as opposed to like instruments). This schedule also does not contain technology. 2.7 would have also been a more acceptable compromise for Band and Strings than 2.5.
  • Schedule 2.8: This was a variation of 2.7 that attempted to better equalize PE.

(Note: The decimal numbers were just convenience for naming and the increasing decimals did not necessarily imply an increase in time for any particular special.) 

Step 4: The BIG Sticking Points and The Greater Good

A critical downside of 2.6 and 2.7 was that tech was moved out of the specials block in order to create more flexibility and instructional time in the block. Significant dialog went into exploring how tech could be integrated into the classroom curriculum. Ultimately, we could not figure out how to get computer tech to work outside the block without conflicting with ELL, ALP, and Resource along with the federal mandates that come with some of those. Had we been able to accomplish that, we could have settled on 2.6 or more likely 2.7 (in order to accommodate the other specials). Either one of those would have meant more Band and Strings instructional time and would have been a compromise we would have been much happier with. It is based on this that we conceded that 2.5 was the only schedule that accommodated the computer tech requirement. 

At this point, a final issue came up. Until that point we had looked at Friday as being a day we would make up extra time for Band and Strings. However, we realized that on short weeks, the other specials would get skipped completely. It quickly became clear that the only way to overcome that was to treat Friday as a flex day instead of a Total Band and Strings day in order for the other specials to make up time. This was difficult. We had invested huge effort into trying to make 2.6 or 2.7 work but couldn't because of the tech factor. To put that in context, going from 2.7 to 2.5 with Friday NOT being a flex day was a seven hour reduction in time. It was also an eleven hour reduction from the six day. Making Friday a flex day would be a loss of an additional five more hours.

This is where we had to decide whether to hold out for what is best for music at the significant expense of other programs, or take a less desirable compromise for the greater good. At this stage, 'greater good' meant many things but specifically these:

  • Keep tech in the specials block.
  • Make sure every special is seen on short weeks.
  • Make sure specials are seen by homeroom classes.

In the end, we pressed for as much as we could conscionably ask for Band and Strings. Because 2.6 and 2.7 could not meet all the 'greater good' criteria, the only option left was 2.5. While it is the least optimal of all the scenarios as far as Band and Strings are concerned, it is an improvement over the original proposal, and it demonstrates respect and accommodation for all other stake holders.

Step 5: The Compromise (Modified 2.5 With Friday Flex Day)

The final compromise, Schedule 2.5 is described in the PDF document created by Jenny. It also includes a description of 2.7 for comparison as well as a pros and cons analysis.

Summary of Final Compromise Schedule (2.5)
(PDF Document Download)
(Note: This PDF does not reflect the change to Friday being flex day.)

Brief Explanation of 2.5

A classroom teacher’s view of 2.5 is that every day their students go to a special at the same time. All of their students go to the same special, except when it is a music day and then they attend the music class they have selected. On Full week Flex Friday – the students in Band and Strings go to these classes. The students in General Music would go to one of the other specials. This happens only fourteen times each year.

A band or strings teacher would see each student on week A one time. These students would come to Band and Strings in their classroom grouping. On week B, the Band and Strings students would come two times. They would come in groupings of two classrooms at a time during week B. There would be two kinds of Fridays. On weeks that are shortened by holidays or early dismissals, Friday would make up the day that was missed. On weeks that have all five days, Friday would be used as a Total Band and Strings day. 

Additional Friday note – General Music students would rotate through the other special area classes on Total week Fridays.

The Impact of the New Schedule

The benefits of the new schedule are clear and important to principals and classroom teachers. We have always been supportive of those goals and now, in recommending a schedule that fully achieves those goals, we further demonstrate our support. However, that comes at measurable and significant cost to each of the specials programs. It is important to itemized and document that cost so that over time, we can evaluate the cost/benefit as it plays out then adjust as necessary to increase balance where possible. These costs are high and if we are to incur these costs by moving to the five day schedule, we must do so with a commitment to monitor and assess the negative impacts on an ongoing basis. And, finally, we must do so while fully and openly acknowledging these costs so that they can be referenced in future decision making.

The downside impact to the specials for moving from a six day to a five day schedule are as follows:

Band and Strings Impacts

  • 16 hour reduction in instructional time.
  • 38 fewer meets.
  • No like instruments. The quality and efficiency of instruction will be greatly reduced. As an example, instead of teaching a flute skill once to all the flutes, that same skill has to be taught multiple times to multiple groups. So, not only is instructional time reduced, but, the amount of actual teaching progress that can be made during that time is decreased. 
  • Now juggling three different groups of students instead of two.
  • Inefficient and less consistent groupings of students:
     - 14 Total Meets
     - 20 Single Class Meets
     - 38 Double Class Meets. 
  • Loss of peer help as a result of like instruments not playing together.
  Six Day Original Five Day New Five Day (2.5)
Total Hours 64.2 42 48
Total Meets 110 63 72
Times Per Week Three Less Than Two Less Than Two on Average

Physical Education Impacts

  • 40 minutes per week instead of the state recommended 120 minutes.
  • National standard recommends 60 minutes a day of activity.
  • Decreases PE meets from 54 to 41.
  • With decreased time, less skills retention.

Art Impacts

  • No longer getting the desired 60 minute period. 40 minutes is not enough time to accommodate the specific needs of art instruction.
  • 40 minutes every other week, instead of the 60 minutes every 12 days on the 6 day rotation OR the State recommended 60 minutes a week.
  • With the loss of 20 minutes per session, units will take twice as long to complete resulting in fewer State Standard objectives being met.
  • Loss of material management time.

Library Impacts

  • Students will have limited access to the library "open checkout" resulting from increased classes.
  • More time with students as a class BUT less time to help students individually.
  • Fewer big blocks of time for open library to work individually with students, to give them that one on one time, to find that perfect book or to read with them to get them interested in a book. Many children will ask for help individually, but not in a class setting. 
  • Less time to shelve, process, repair, order books, manage book fairs, run Battle of the Books, deal with AR issues.
  • Less time to be flexible to move teachers around if something interrupts the library time i.e. library sponsored activities such as battle of the books, spelling bees, or other class activities etc.
  • Putting 5th and 6th grade on an every other week basis is detrimental to their love of reading. This is really the last time that we get to hook them before they go to Junior High and virtually quit reading just to read.

General Music Impacts

  • Students only receive 40 minutes per week, not the state standard 90 minutes.
  • Must provide an occasional flex period to general music students, which requires additional lesson planning.
  • General Music class once every 5 days instead of once every 3 days in Kindergarten through 4th grades. This is big for teaching and assessing learning of state standards and also a huge hit for preparing any kind of meaningful quality performances.
  • Loss of about 14 classes per school year (equal to one quarter of instruction on the 6-day schedule)
  • Difficult to prepare musical programs with fewer and less-frequent class times
  • Less flexible school-wide schedule for pulling grade levels together to rehearse for performances.
  • 5th and more likely 6th grades, we would have the potential for very large class sizes that meet in inconsistent groups.

Step 6: Lessons Learned and Moving Forward

What have we learned from all this? What next?

What have we learned from the survey?

We have learned that there is widespread and deeply committed support for music programs in Gilbert. Hundreds of parents have come to board meetings and written letters. Valuable insight can be learned from the sheer number of responses to the specific survey questions:

  • 1252 people responded to the survey. 48% were parents of Gilbert students. 30% were teachers of which only 3% were specials teachers.
  • 839 people (67%) feel that elementary Band and Strings are extremely important to the overall educational/academic experience in Gilbert. Less than 16% feel it is either less important or not important.
  • 927 people (77%) feel that Junior High and High School are extremely important to the overall educational/academic experience in Gilbert. Less than 5% feel it is either less important or not important.
  • 846 people don't want to see any reduction to overall music education and 201 want any reductions to be small.
  • 750 people feel that learning and instrument dramatically improves academic performance and 345 feel that it at least somewhat improves academics. Less than 12% believe there is little or no academic benefit to learning an instrument. The community, including parents and teachers, clearly sees the academic value of music education.
  • 769 people strongly opposed reductions to elementary Band and Strings while 225 preferred to avoid reductions if possible.
  • 779 people wanted to see the schedule fixed without reductions to Band and Strings.
  • 704 people feel that the quality of music education in Gilbert is extremely high. Less than 11% feel it is average or below.
  • The follow up question to that sought to connect the role elementary music education plays in the success of the overall music program in Gilbert. 883 people see a very direct correlation. Over 90% of the respondents felt that there is a correlation between the quality of elementary Band and Strings and the rest of the district programs. This underscores one of the most central reasons we have been so passionate and motivated in preserving our elementary programs. We strongly believe that any negative impacts are not limited to just elementary but ripple to Junior High and High School as well. Over 70% of the respondents strong agree with that view. Add 19.5% that think the correlation is at least somewhat important and we can safely conclude that we cannot ignore how decisions we make for elementary schedule could impact the rest of the district.

With community feedback like that, why would I recommend a schedule compromise that seems to contradict so much of it?

First of all, we must be fair and balanced in how we interpret and quantify the feedback by looking at all angles:

  • 160 people are okay with the magnitude of cuts that come with the five day schedule.
  • 247 people are not concerned with Band and Strings reductions.
  • 159 people are open to the idea of reducing Band and Strings in order to fix the schedule while 185 feel that Band and Strings reductions are an appropriate approach for schedule fixing.
  • As noted above, 413 people feel that the five day schedule is likely the best way to fix the schedule.

Second, the very real challenges of classroom teachers are critical and central to why the district is entertaining schedule changes in the first place. Thus, their voice is extremely important and must be heard. Because respondents that identify themselves as teacher or classroom teacher are relatively fewer, we need focus carefully on what they are saying so that their voice is not drowned out. The following is extracted from the group of people who identified themselves as either a teacher (unspecified) or an elementary classroom teacher:

  • 72% say it is extremely important to fix the schedule and 20% say it is somewhat important. Over 92% of teachers are saying we need to fix this.
  • 75% feel that Band and Strings reductions of some degree are acceptable under these circumstances.
  • While 74% acknowledge the academic merits of learning an instrument, 46% are not concerned about reductions and 32% are only somewhat concerned. 78% feel that Band and Strings reductions are an acceptable part of a schedule fix.
  • Perhaps the most notable is that 75% of teachers (over 200) prefer the five day schedule.
  • 83% of teachers feel that elementary Band and Strings are important to the rest of the district's programs. Combine this result with the 74% acknowledgement of the academic merits of music education and and I draw a critical conclusion: Classroom teachers support and appreciate music education in Gilbert! How do we reconcile that with the majority of classroom teachers supporting a schedule that hurts music? Well, just because they want the best teaching environment for their classrooms doesn't mean they don't appreciate and support music. For them, optimizing their classrooms is paramount and that is to be expected. We support that as an objective. Adapting for the benefit of classroom teacher goals is central to our reason for supporting the proposed compromise.

The most valuable data in the survey is the several hundred pages of written responses that identify wide ranging benefits and passion for music education as well as the downsides of the new schedule. The written responses also contain very passionate and articulate viewpoints supporting the benefits of the the five day schedule and the resultant schedule fixes. For a complete survey summary including highlights from the written responses, go here:

Elementary Schedules Survey Summary 

Other Pressures

We have also learned that budget is not the only barrier to having the ideal music program. There are only so many hours in a school day. As those hours have filled up over time with other demands, the pressure has increased not just on music, but all areas. PE, Art, and Library have also suffered through this. As a district and a community, we should have an ongoing and open dialog about priorities. As US and Arizona citizens, we should be very aware of how education policy created out of our local control steers our priorities in ways we as a community may or may not like. We say that teaching the whole child is among our highest priorities. However, many pressures continue to squeeze out the very things that nurture the whole child. Special area classes are critical to truly educating to the whole child. Students learn creativity, insight, discipline, team work, compassion, and passion in Music, PE, Art, and Library that they can't learn anywhere else. As internal and external pressures squeeze these into a smaller and smaller box, not just our students, but our society pays a heavy price. 

Evaluate and Re-evaluate Moving Forward

As for this milestone decision on elementary scheduling we suggest that we regularly evaluate and re-evaluate the both the benefits and costs of this decision and make adjustments in the future if needed. PE, Art, and Library received very little consideration in this process. Some of the consideration for them that we attempted to explore could not be entertained because of the current devastating budget crisis that will be further and severely compounded if Prop 100 fails. But, in this case, the conflict of time seems to be far greater than the conflict of dollars for all the specials. We must be willing to look at this again over time as both the dollar situation improves, the time situation shifts, or policy changes allow for additional time for Special Area Instruction. At the end of the day, not just music, but all the specials have stepped backwards in this process for the greater good. Should time and/or dollar resources further diminish, we would hope that would be taken into consideration during future decision making.

As advocates and supporters of the music education programs in our district, we are disappointed in the reductions, respectful of the reasons, and grateful for the stakeholder process that has allowed us to improve our situation beyond the original recommendations. We are also appreciative of the other members of the stakeholder group and the huge amount of time and effort that was expended. Taking this extra time was no small thing. It was time consuming, laborious, and emotionally taxing. But, I strongly believe it was worth it for the mutual respect, understanding, and consensus it has helped foster.

I need to give extra thanks to our fellow special area teachers, Brenda Koerselman, Deb Garza, Caryn Anson, Paul Edwards, and Lee Meschino. This has been an especially difficult process for them. The challenges and setbacks they have faced have also been significant but not been well publicized. In spite of that, they have worked very hard to collaborate and make the best of this. Their programs also matter, and they matter significantly. Let us not forget what they have given up and seek for opportunities in the future for them to regain lost ground. 

Last of all, I want to thank Brad Seagraves and Jenny Nichols. Nobody will ever know how much time, how many weekends, and how many nights they have spent. Beyond that, nobody will know the extent of emotion, distress, and sleepless nights this has caused them. Instrumental music faced significant reductions both in the original proposal and in the final compromise. Out of amazing passion for their programs, Brad and Jenny were tireless in seeking a better alternative. They rose to the occasion and to the very last gave everything they had to protecting what they love so much.

For follow up questions or clarification, please contact me, Jason Barney at jason@jasonbarney.com.