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South Hills

Thomas Jefferson HS course overhaul proposal questioned by students, parents

| Friday, March 2, 2018, 11:00 p.m.

An overhaul to the Thomas Jefferson High School schedule would give students more choices, ease up on their daily stresses and provide teachers with the chance to tutor students during the day, administrators said.

The proposal includes shifting to an eight-period day and adding a 90-minute period mid-day where students could choose their lunch time each day and select from an array of 30- to 60-minute offerings that could include mindful relaxation, scholarship help or time in the tech shop. Teachers also could schedule students for added help during 30- or 60-minute time slots during that period. Thomas Jefferson High School currently has nine periods in a day.

“Literally, you're rescheduling the building every single day,” Superintendent Michael Ghilani said.

West Jefferson Hills School District administrators presented options for the proposed changes to a packed cafeteria of furious parents and students Feb. 22, who expressed concerned that the proposed changes would limit student electives and hinder college acceptance.

The changes are pending school board approval, which will be sought in March.

The idea for the changes came from surveys of key stakeholders in the district that Ghilani launched when he joined West Jefferson Hills in early 2017.

In the surveys, students indicated they were receiving tutoring outside of school, they wanted access to more Advanced Placement classes and an “increased level of rigor,” Ghilani said.

Teachers noted both they and their students were under “a lot of pressure” and teachers worried about their students mental health, Ghilani said.

A steering committee was launched to study how to address these issues, said Scott Milburn, assistant to the superintendent of secondary education. Meetings with student focus groups were held and members of the steering committee shadowed students for a day to learn about their struggles.

Administrators proposed numerous changes to scheduling and classes during the Feb. 22 presentation.

Shifting to eight periods in a day — like other high achieving districts have done — would allow for the creation of “personalized learning time” where students could get added support from teachers or partake in a class of their choosing for 30 to 60 minutes a day.

“In this module, you don't pull them out of class time to get extra help,” Ghilani said.

Ghilani and Millburn, both who came to West Jefferson Hills from the Montour school district, introduced the program there.

“Teachers have the option of offering anything they want during that time,” Ghilani said. “What you find is kids are happier, they're healthier, but the teachers are also happier and healthier.”

Students and parents in attendance at the meeting were outraged at the idea of losing a period in the day, and a chance to take an extra elective or AP course they say could help them get into college.

Ghilani reminded them that colleges do not count every AP course on their transcripts.

Students also said this could hurt the arts, with students in lower grade levels faced with the choice of taking an extra AP course or chorus or band.

Ghilani said that is not the intent of the changes.

While students argued they're handling a heavy load of classes, administrators said students need that break in the day to “let the air out of the balloon.”

Heidi Karcher, who has taught science at Thomas Jefferson for more than 20 years, said she sees students coming to class exhausted. They do homework for one class in another class. They need homework help in homeroom. They stay after school for extracurriculars.

“They're not sleeping. They're stressed out,” she said, fighting back tears. “Most of the kids are struggling. They're mentally stressed. That's what we see from you guys. You struggle. You might not see it, but we do.”

Ghilani said for students who can handle more, there are opportunities.

Other proposed changes included requiring all students who take AP classes to take the AP exam at the end of the course — at a cost of $90 — in order to get added QPA credit.

Students at Thomas Jefferson currently are taking AP classes, but not the AP exams, which doesn't allow the district to weigh its AP courses against those across the nation, administrators said.

The proposal also includes eliminating science labs for general courses and adding extra labs for honors and AP science courses. Changes also are proposed for how physical education courses are scheduled.

Parent Eileen Andreola said instead of changes, what the district needs right now is stability.

Ghilani is the eighth superintendent in West Jefferson Hills in the last 11 years.

“Every superintendent has come in here and changed something,” Andreola said. Many of the changes didn't stick.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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