Some high schools exploring advantages of alternative scheduling

The high school has long been operating on the semester system, which divides the year into two halves, with a different schedule for each, but it’s not the only option. Some Iowa colleges have long since used the quarter system for their courses as a way to give students more options for the intensity of their learning, a system that some Iowa high schools decided to imitate. Instead of dividing the year into semesters, the quarter system subdivides the year into quarters, as the name would suggest.

The quarter system has several different variations between schools, but the same general outline remains. When using the quarter system, each quarter will last 10 weeks, during which students will take three to four classes, each of which lasts 90 minutes instead of the traditional 45. Quarters are a higher intensity option as opposed to a semester class setup, since teachers need to fit 15 weeks of material into 10 weeks. The difficulty of the assignments doesn’t change, but assignments will have less time to be completed; however, students get 90 minutes of class time to do them, which is something to consider. 

The higher intensity option is counterbalanced by the idea that by having less classes that are longer, you actually end up having less work to worry about at one time, and can put all of your focus into just a few classes at a time. After the 10 week quarter is complete, classes will switch to another four classes to complete a full semester. After the semester change, students will have another set of eight classes that will be completed across two quarters.

The quarter system has a few other advantages as opposed to the semester system. The frequently changing classes offer more opportunities to meet new people and give more flexibility to try out a new course that students might find interesting, but not have the space in a traditional semester system schedule. The quarter system also has the advantage of allowing for a quarter that happens during the summer. This is more commonly used in college as a way to complete classes for some more credits before you graduate, but it is also a built-in summer school period. 

Jeff Gustason is the principal of Linn-Mar high school. Linn-Mar schedules classes on both a quarter and semester system. Students have the option to take classes that follow the quarter system, or last the length of a semester. The quarter long classes are either faster paced, or simply have less content to cover during the shorter duration. This option of having traditionally paced classes and shorter, faster quarter system classes gives students the ability to customize their schedule to optimize their time at school. 

A more unique version of the quarter system is a college system, which, instead of dividing the school year into quarters, divides the calendar year into quarters. It has the same layout and class schedule as the regular quarter system, except it has a built in quarter during summer that can be openly attended by students. This version is almost exclusively seen in colleges.

Kelly Gallagher is a consultant for school improvement at the Central Rivers AEA and works with schools who use both the semester and quarter system. Gallagher said that the quarter system is a higher intensity model that offers extreme flexibility in how it can be set up for any individual student. It allows students to focus on higher intensity courses and balance them with the rest of their schedule so that they don’t feel like they need to tackle everything at once. Gallagher said that semesters are the more traditional option, and that doesn’t have nearly as much flexibility as quarters, but it does see that students have a longer time to get to know their teachers, and it is easier for them to get more personal, one-on-one instruction. 

However, Gallagher personally believes in a happy medium, the trimester system. The trimester system divides the year into three trimesters, and takes from both the semester and quarter system. Each trimester is 12 to 13 weeks long, with three to four classes for each trimester. Classes are not as intense as during the quarter system, but still move at a faster pace than during a semester. Trimesters offer a balance between the flexibility of a quarter system, while also allowing students to have more time to prepare for things like final exams. Many schools that use the trimester system will incorporate the built in summer school period. 

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