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Is Rancho Cotate’s class schedule a new distance learning model?

Last year, Rancho Cotate High School senior Lauren Poteet struggled in her math class. The school’s block schedule meant that she wasn’t seeing her teacher every day and that lack of consistency made it difficult for her to grasp concepts.

When the coronavirus hit in March and all school campuses in Sonoma County were shuttered, forcing both students and teachers into distance learning, Poteet didn’t fare much better trying to learn from home.

But this year, Poteet has no such problems. She is thriving academically. And according to first quarter grades, so are the majority of Rancho’s approximately 1,500 students.

Amid the public outcry over a worrisome spike in failing grades among Sonoma County’s secondary students, Rancho Cotate stands apart. While some schools are reporting double the number of failing grades among some student populations, the number of failing grades at Rancho Cotate has dropped 13% in the first quarter of the school year, according to principal Louis Ganzler.

A key, Ganzler said, is that Rancho Cotate completely overhauled its schedule heading into the current school year. Now students take three classes at a time, down from six. Teachers are responsible for educating 75 kids, down from 150. The block schedule, which met every other day, is gone. Classes now meet every day and a year’s worth of curriculum is delivered in a semester.

"Classes are five days a week,“ Ganzler said. ”That’s another difference between us and everyone else. I would argue that is why we have not only not seen skyrocketing rates (of failing grades) but also a little bit of a decline, (because) we are seeing our kids every single day.“

While 1 in 4 students have an F on their report cards, that is down from 30% of students this time last year, he said, adding that the number is still too high.

“We have work to do. I don’t think it’s a victory,“ he said.

As educators host countywide summits to address the unprecedented number of Fs and soaring rates of anxiety among students, Rancho Cotate’s plan is being examined as a potential model for better connecting students to curriculum in an unprecedented time of extended learning from home. Dubbed a three-by-three schedule to represent three classes per semester, the format has also been adopted at Geyserville New Tech Academy among its approximately 66 high school students.

At Rancho Cotate, the typical student starts their day at 8:30 a.m. with the first of three 30-minute online classes. At 10:30 a.m. students with special needs, English-language learners and others sign on for an additional hourlong support class called Learning Center. Teachers host regular office hours and assign offline, or asynchronous, work.

“The reasons it took hold was it answered so many difficult questions that we were wrestling with: how do we reduce stress? How do you reduce the number of students teachers have but make sure students have the right amount of classes?“ Ganzler said. ”The mind is able to focus on three things a lot better than it is able to focus on six.“

But students, and teachers, have had to quickly recalibrate to adjust to a different pace of learning and teaching.

“It’s challenging, the pace. There is no sugarcoating it, but it’s doable,” Ganzler said. “There is not a sense that we are giving up our fidelity to standards or rigor.”

For math teacher Kristin Lecel, the pace has its advantages. There are not long lag times between concepts that in years past might have forced her to reintroduce ideas throughout the year.

“What I’m finding with my students is that I’m over halfway through the curriculum and if I refer to stuff that we did at the beginning of the year, they remember it way better than if we were in a traditional class,” she said.

Lecel, like other teachers at Rancho, uses a “flipped classroom” concept, meaning she makes instructional videos students can watch, and in some cases re-watch, on their own and she uses live class time the next day to go over questions they may have encountered the day prior.

For a student like Poteet who struggled with her math class last year, Lecel’s schedule and the fact that the class meets daily is crucial to her success.

“I think the three-by-three really plays into my understanding of it. I think it really benefited me the way it's done,” Poteet said.

Ganzler said he didn’t reinvent the wheel, he just borrowed one that has been turning elsewhere in the nation for years.

“There are a whole bunch of high schools that have adopted that model and done it for decades. And colleges are absolutely familiar with this system of a semesterlong class,” he said.

For many students and teachers, the word “overwhelming” was used to describe the spring semester. Time management was a struggle, the workload felt intense and support was sparse.

“At that point it felt like it was doing the work to get the work done, but I don’t think I learned a lot,“ senior Eli Lerch said. ”It felt like I was doing all this work and not getting any kind of reward from it. I considered graduating early.“

But the prospect of a spring track season and her involvement with student government helped her stay the course. And the new schedule has been a game changer.

“I get overwhelmed easy and think all high school students tend to get overwhelmed if they are bombarded by a lot of work,” she said.

The downside of the accelerated pace? There is not a lot of room for error or slacking, especially with an academically rigorous class load, Lerch said.

“If you fall behind and are not super vigilant in catching up and staying on pace you fall behind much easier,“ she said.

But even ardent supporters of the new format say there was an adjustment period.

Susan Adams, mother of a Rancho senior, said the workload in the early weeks of school seemed much like it was in the spring semester — fast, furious and unsustainable. But Adams credited Ganzler with heeding a survey sent to students and parents, and then encouraging an adjustment in how classes and assignments are structured.

“He’s figured it out. He’s cracked the code,“ Adams said. ”In our house it’s working.“

For Spanish teacher Lucia Papineau, having daily interaction with students helps not only with language delivery but noticing if students need extra help.

“There is a lot more of the one-on-one time, because it’s a little easier to manage,” she said. “And yet the kids are getting a full year of their coursework and it’s not like we are cutting them short.”

Lecel agreed.

“I’m on track to teach them everything I think they need to know,” she said.

Ganzler, who said administrators and staff began examining the three-by-three and other alternate models beginning last March, credited the teaching staff with embracing the change and adapting how they deliver lessons.

“There is serious consideration of keeping this model. At first it was 'This is the least worst option and as soon as things get back to normal we will get back to our beloved seven subject system,’ ” Ganzler said. “But I can tell you that people are not itching to get rid of it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@benefield.

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