Updated: Jun 10, 2022
Jefferson High School with its narrow hallways, leaking roof and aging boiler was ranked 28th out of 450 high schools in Minnesota in 2013. The following fall, Jefferson was replaced with the $70 million Alexandria Area High School, which is currently ranked as 180th out of 428 high schools in our state. The ranking provided by schooldigger.com is based on MCA-III Reading, Math and Science test scores.
Significant changes to the academic structure of the high school came with the opening of the 283,000 square foot modern campus. An Academy model was adopted to establish “small” learning communities. All freshmen are entered into the “Freshman Exploration Academy”. When registering for 9th grade, students select one of three academies, EMTNR (Engineering, Manufacturing, Technology and Natural Resources); BCE (Business Communications and Entrepreneurship) or HSHS (Health Science and Human Services).
The decrease in academic achievement has likely been significantly impacted by the structural change in the new school-day schedule. The Alexandria Area High School opened with a new A/B block schedule. Traditionally, a student attended the same classes five days a week for just under an hour for each class. The A/B block schedule has students attending four classes on A days, with a different set of 4 classes on B days. Each class block is approximately an hour and a half long. Each block rotates every other day.
One common complaint is that the time gap between classes can delay the student from receiving effective help, when a student is struggling with a topic. For example, if a student’s math class is in the A block and that week it lands on Friday, it will be three days before that student is able to connect with that teacher to receive assistance. If that class has a Flex period, the gap without teacher contact is extended.
Flex periods may also be contributing to some of the academic downturn. A Flex period is when a teacher is absent, and a substitute is not hired to replace them. Students are generally given an assignment to be completed on their chrome book. Students are not supervised during Flex periods.
The longer class periods of the A/B model are more common in vocational high schools. Vo-tech high schools focus on giving students skills for an occupation, better preparing them to enter the workforce directly out of school. Traditional high schools focus on a general knowledge base to prepare students for post-secondary education. Teaching in a vocational setting is very different than teaching in a traditional high school setting. Teachers trained to teach in a traditional academic setting may struggle with this teaching format.
Does the A/B model schedule limit students' opportunities?
One important hidden effect of the A/B model is that it limits a student's opportunities to take advantage of the Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) college credit program. A student who wants to enroll in college classes during their high school years can do so for free. This allows some students to get college credits at the same time they are fulfilling their high school degree requirements. Some students can even complete a two-year college degree program by the time they graduate from high school. These PSEO classes are free to the high school students that are enrolled in the PSEO program, and receive college credit that the student can transfer to the college they continue at after graduation.
However, the A/B model high school class schedule forces students to make a choice between not taking any PSEO classes or taking only PSEO classes. College course schedules are typically scheduled on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or a Tuesday, Thursday weekly schedule. These classes meet on the same day each week, for the entire semester. In contrast, the A/B model schedule meets on every other Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and then on Tuesday, Thursday during the interim weeks. This schedule does not match up with the college schedules. Therefore, students are forced to either never take any PSEO classes, because they would have to miss classes during the interim weeks, or to jump right into a full-time college course load.
Many students are not ready to make that transition to a full-time college course load. Those students are not able to even try a PSEO class because the A/B model schedule prevents that opportunity.
Is the schedule cost-effective?
A stunning fact is the A/B day schedule comes at a significant financial cost, while reducing the contact time with teachers. The alternating class day schedule costs an estimated $800,000 a year more than the traditional schedule. Tradition class scheduling of 50 minutes per period, meeting five days per week, provided 172 student-contact days, totaling 8,600 minutes of teacher contact a year. Alternatively, the A/B block days of 85 minutes per class period reduces the contact days to 86 days, totaling 7,310 minutes of teacher contact in a school year. That is a reduction of 1,290 minutes, or 25.8 fewer 50-minute class periods, for each class in a student’s schedule.
Is the ranking drop district-wide?
While our High School’s ranking has dropped significantly, in comparison, Discovery Middle School’s ranking has remained relatively stable. This would illustrate the drop in Alexandria Area High School’s academic achievement is not systemic in our community. The problem is within the High School itself.
Other ranking information echo’s schooldigger.com’s findings. The US News 2022 high school rankings ranked Alexandria Area High School 7,428th in the nation. Making it second in our small region. Osakis Secondary School ranked 7,252nd nationally, outranking Alexandria by 97 places. Alexandria does beat Osakis in per pupil spending, with a price tag of $13,462 per pupil, verses Osakis’ $10,259 per pupil spending.
It is imperative that our district look at this disturbing trend and make appropriate adjustments to improve the academic standing of our high school. The quality of education our students receive will follow them for life, potentially negatively impacting their post-secondary educational experience. Our schools are a vital resource. The Alexandria area community supports our schools, and in return, expects high-quality education that leads our state in academic achievement.