Thomas Jefferson High School implements personal learning time
Tranquil music echoes through the main hallway of Thomas Jefferson High School’s athletic wing during the middle of the school day.
Roughly 20 students lay on the turf floor, bending and stretching in meditative yoga poses.
In the gymnasium next door, it’s much louder, as students compete in a competitive game of bat ball.
While all of this occurs, a line of students step up inside the adjacent auxiliary gym and fire their bows in a new archery group forming at the school.
“It’s kind of exciting,” said senior Maxwell Skalos, 17, after taking his aim at the mark. “It’s weird to be doing this in school, though.”
Students at Thomas Jefferson High School have a wide range of options for how they want to spend an hour and a half of time in the middle of the school day, ranging from watching ’80s movies to getting help filling out college applications, or working with a teacher when they’re falling behind.
Along with moving into the new $95 million Thomas Jefferson High School at 835 Old Clairton Road this year, district leaders also implemented a new schedule that gives students more rein over their day.
Personalized learning time takes place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day and is divided into three, 30-minute segments — one of which is lunch. Students can choose from a schedule of options provided online for how they want to spend that time. They can choose in advance or up until 11 a.m. each day.
Teachers are required to pull students who are behind at least two times a week for extra help during that time. They spend the other days sharing their interests with students through activities they plan, ranging from Fantasy Football to knitting.
School leaders say they hope personalized learning time will bring about an increase in attendance, build relationships between students and teachers and reduce the number of failures.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the kids and a great opportunity for the teachers,” said gifted support teacher Dan Giger, who secured a grant to provide archery equipment for the school. “I see kids that I don’t normally see and I can offer them things that I don’t normally offer.”
The idea for personalized learning time came from Superintendent Michael Ghilani and assistant superintendent of secondary education Scott Milburn.
While working as a principal in Upper St. Clair, Ghilani said he attended a Luma Institute program on reimaging high school, where they talked about structuring time differently.
“The hangup always was … how are you going to schedule kids?” he said. “Especially if you want to do it the day of, or the day before.”
While Ghilani and Milburn were working as administrators in Montour School District, they learned about FlexTime Manager, where students can sign on and schedule themselves into a class as late as that same day. Teachers and administrators also have the option to schedule groups of students if they want to meet with them.
Milburn worked with the principal at Montour High School to pilot the program with one 39-minute session during the day, in 2016-17.
“The overriding purpose of it is more time,” Ghilani said.
Teachers often say their main problems are not having enough time with students that need extra help and that activities interrupt the flow of the day when they’re trying to teach, he said.
With personalized learning time, all activities can occur during that already prescheduled time. Schedules don’t need to be changed repeatedly to make way for school pictures and class meetings.
With the new high school, Principal Pete Murphy assigned all high school students to a mentor teacher this year where they spent their first 12 days of PLT taking a tour of the new building, going over the school handbook, getting pictures taken, meeting with the local magistrate and learning about the electronic hallpasses.
For the last two years, programs like this have caused students at TJ to miss between 550 and 600 minutes of instructional time in September alone, Milburn said.
“That’s almost three days of school,” he said.
This year, zero time was lost, Murphy said. “It really allowed us to structure our time more efficiently.”
There are no homerooms with this schedule – that takes the day from nine periods to eight. Sixth period is 90 minutes, divided into three 30 minute segments for PLT.
“We run a traditional school from periods one to five. It looks like anywhere else,” Murphy said. “When it gets to sixth period, that’s when PLT starts.”
The options for PLT are limitless, Murphy said. He talks about collaborations with businesses and community leaders who come in and talk with students.
For Sept. 11, a speaker visited the school and spoke with 120 students about their experience.
What made that even better, the students chose to hear him, Murphy said.
“You didn’t have to go. Your teacher didn’t force you to go. You were there because you wanted to hear it,” he said.
PLT encourages students to do well, Ghilani said. Students who are performing better have the option to choose what they want to do during that time, whereas students who aren’t doing as well could be assigned by a teacher to come in for help.
PLT is meant to get students out of their lane, Ghilani said.
Teachers are using the time also for test preparation sessions and academic support for anyone who needs it. Students can choose from a wide array of study halls, from quiet to ones featuring music and dancing.
The district plans to add SAT prep courses during PLT.
Freshman Ashley Lieberum, 14, took a “Color Me Calm” session with her friends during PLT.
For her, it’s a nice break from the rigor of the day.
“It’s great to go from all the classes when you’re tired and stressed and come to something where you can relax,” she said. “You just have more energy by the end of the day and you feel more positive.”
Students can choose between one of three lunch sessions.
Freshman Eva Lavrinc, 14, said she and her friends plan to try out all of the sessions to see what works best for them.
PLT is great, she said. “It just washes away the stress from the day,” she said. “It makes you feel responsible, that you’re getting older and your parents aren’t picking things for you anymore.”