Cedar Rapids schools to drop trimesters, Iowa City explores same

Calendar to be divided into two 18-week semesters, with nine-week quarters

Published: March 25 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:07 am in

A calendar change is coming to the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

Beginning with the 2015-2016 school year, the calendar will be divided into two 18-week semesters, with nine-week quarters, instead of three 12-week trimesters.

Deputy Superintendent Mary Ellen Maske said that switching to a calendar unit that many local districts favor is one advantage of the change.

“There’s so much mobility in the Corridor and in the metro area,” she said. “When students move into our system of trimesters, it’s very difficult to look at their transcripts and determine the right placement for them.”

The Iowa City Community School District uses trimesters, while College Community uses a combination of trimesters, quarters and semesters. The Marion, Linn-Mar, Clear Creek Amana and Solon districts use quarters and/or semesters.

Another benefit Maske cited was the chance to improve calendar and credit alignment with area higher education institutions.

“We want to better partner and provide expanded opportunities to take courses at the community college or college level,” she said.

Members of a committee in the Iowa City district are studying the option of eschewing trimesters. Assistant Superintendent Ann Feldmann, who has spoken with Maske about this transition, also cited the hurdle of properly placing transfer students from districts that don’t operate on trimesters as one reason to explore changing Iowa City’s calendar.

“It has a lot to do with the mobility of our students, students who come to our community in the middle of a term. It is not smooth to move from a semester to a trimester and vice versa,” said Feldmann, who is a facilitator on the calendar units committee.

Feldmann mentioned district data showing that between 8 and 9 percent of Iowa City West High School students and around 14 percent of Iowa City High School learners enroll while the year is in progress. That population districtwide is estimated at about 300 learners and Feldmann said it’s expected to rise.

Combine that with what she called “a bumpy second trimester” this year – in which the district had five weather cancellations and seven late starts – and it becomes prime time to talk calendar shifts.

Both the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids districts have posed the question of shifting to semesters from trimesters via their community outreach websites. The topic is still open for discussion on www.EngageCRSchools.com, a Cedar Rapids Community School District website.

Users on sites for both school districts expressed concerns about reduced elective options for students, while one Iowa City resident chimed in support for the change both because it would smooth the transition for transfer students and make it easier for learners to earn credit at community colleges and universities.

Course corrections

Those lost days due to bad weather in the winter trimester will be made up in the spring trimester. That means an Iowa City student who is enrolled in a trimester-long class, as opposed to a yearlong course, may not actually get to make up the days of lost instruction in that section.

By the time the makeup days come around in the spring trimester, that student may be in a different class. In that case, it’s not an exact quid pro quo.

“It has to do with that timing where the semester ends in mid-January. You have some of your snow days in the first semester,” Feldmann said.

“It would balance them out. … Who knows when the snow is going to come, but what we predict is that they won’t all hit in the same trimester because we won’t have that winter trimester.”

Maske said that administrators and staff plan to work through spring, summer and the entire 2014-2015 school year in preparation for the switch.

“What will happen is, those trimester courses will be semester courses,” she said. “We see that as an opportunity to go more in depth with the content rather than making it broader … .

"That will provide the opportunity to make them more in depth and more rigorous as the Iowa Core dictates.”

Kelly Phelan, a physical education teacher at Jefferson High School in the Cedar Rapids district, said combining course material has been a struggle in the past.

“Taking all of this content and smushing it down doesn’t work as well. You’re just rushing,” she said of her past experience with merging courses. “The kids don’t get it as well.”

Question of limited options

Stuart Ordman, who said he has taught for years under both semester and trimester calendars, shared fears about what the change could mean for the Jefferson community.

“I’m concerned that Jefferson students will not have as many choices,” he said. “That is (also) a major concern, that it’s truly financial.”

Maske said that finances were not a motivation for the change and that she is not anticipating cost savings as a result of changing to semesters and quarters.

The change also means that for three years the school district will have to use dual transcripts for graduation requirements, as students will carry credits earned under both the trimester and semester schedules.

Maske said it was “premature” to definitively say whether some high school courses would be lost in the transition.

“I’m not sure whether it will limit their options,” she said when asked if students still will have the ability to take the same amount of desired classes.

That’s one concern shared by Phelan, Ordman and two of their Jefferson physical-education colleagues.

Matt Orton, who teaches performance PE, said his smallest class section is 54 students while his largest is 72. He foresees class sizes of more than 100 students when the school shifts to semesters, which concerns him when it comes to available space and equipment.

“Are we going to maintain all options available to students? If so, great,” he said. “When are we getting our new (physical education) teacher?”

All four instructors also expressed fears that they will lose students in the transition.

“The kids who truly want to take PE as an elective will be put on a waiting list," said Brian Webb, who teaches physical education at Jefferson. "There’s only two ways to fix that in my opinion – larger class sizes or you’re going to have to hire more PE teachers.”

Feldmann said that in Iowa City, converting the calendar to semesters might result in both core and elective trimester-length classes being combined or dropped altogether.

"That’s one of the downsides," she said. "You’re either going to have to combine courses or you’re going to have to pick and choose which ones stay.”

Administrators in Iowa City already are looking at class sizes as a way to trim from the budget, and Feldmann said that the method of making smaller classes larger might affect course offerings more than a calendar change will.

“We’re asking to reduce the number of courses that have fewer than 24 students in them, so some of our elective courses will not survive that sort of system as is. It may be more the function of an efficient class-size system than a calendar issue,” Feldmann said.

She replied “absolutely not” when asked if the calendar change was about staff reductions.

The Iowa City committee — which includes students, teachers, guidance counselors and administrators at both the building and district levels – formed in February, met twice and is set to meet two more times before delivering a recommendation to Superintendent Steve Murley in April.

The committee also sent a surveys to district staff and community members about the potential change, but Feldmann said she hasn’t seen the results.

If the committee recommends moving toward semesters, Feldmann said the earliest the change would happen is 2015-2016.

“We’ve not talked specifically, but that’s the earliest,” she said. “Certainly next fall we would not be ready.”

 

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