SOMERS, N.Y. - When you’re finishing up your favorite jigsaw puzzle, what’s worse — finding out there’s an extra piece that won’t fit, or finding out that one’s missing?

In the case of 7th-grade art at the Somers Middle School, both answers could apply this fall.

According to SMS Principal Jeffrey Getman, the school has been gearing up for a big scheduling change for nearly four years.

Sign Up for Somers Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

He told the Board of Education last week that, besides meeting the requirements of its transitioning to the “Middle Years Programme” (MYP) and those of the state Education Department — the new “Drop Block Lock” schedule is more flexible and will give students better elective choices.

The school wants to become an International Baccalaureate School, which includes the Middle Years Programme curriculum. 

During the scheduling team’s research, it found that one of the biggest “equity” issues was the ability of budding musicians to take part in performing arts groups.

Many SMS kids simply weren’t participating because band, chorus, and orchestral groups met before school opened for the day.

(This is separate from general music classes.)

This meant that if their parents couldn’t drop them off at 7:30 a.m., they had to take the bus to the high school (with students potentially six years older), then a shuttle to SMS.

“We’ve had kids do it, but I can tell you that it’s a handful. I don’t think that’s fair,” Getman said Tuesday, July 30.

The proposed schedule moves performing group classes into the regular school hours. They will meet every other day and participants will not take a general music class.

Those not in a performing group will get two trimesters of music class in 7th grade only, the same amount of time as the new SMS art requirement.

Part of the reason the district is able to do this is the decline in enrollment. Fewer kids means it can offer more music electives, such as electronic music and voice lessons.

According to the district, it is “very unusual for middle-school students to have many different learning experiences outside normal courses.”

The “mini-courses” to be offered during the WIN block, it added, “will allow students to explore different opportunities and interests, as they currently do in high school.”

This didn’t seem to placate some SMS parents who aired their concerns Tuesday after hearing that art was going to be dropped in the 7th grade.

Several wondered why that had happened and pointed out that all kids can express themselves through art, but not everyone is cut out to be an athlete or has musical abilities.

Having an emotional outlet is especially important in light of the trauma many have experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they stressed.

Getman explained that SMS students currently get 10 weeks of art class each year. That adds up to 30 weeks over 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. The state requires a total of 20 weeks in middle school.

Under the proposed schedule—which is switching from a quarterly to a trimester format—6th- and 8th-graders would get one trimester of art each, totaling 26 weeks.

“Mini-courses” in art will be offered during the 35-minute WIN (What I Need) period, Getman said.

One parent claimed that this wouldn’t work for students who really need to use that time to get support in math, reading, and other subjects.

Some of them with Individualized Education Programs or 504 Plans (for students with disabilities) use WIN for skills help five days a week. Parents feared that meant they’d have no art opportunities at all.

Getman said that there could be another slot of time for “mini-courses” in art because some of these students don’t take world languages.

There is an art club, but it only meets twice a month after school and parents say some kids might not be able to participate.

Board trustees and parents suggested that art instruction be worked into other courses, such as technology. Getman agreed that the MYP does include a lot of “inter-disciplinary” sharing.

Somers High School art teacher Angela Holder on Tuesday decried the potential loss of 7th-grade art.

Referencing the popular district-wide student art show, Holder said: “It doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it starts in the classroom.”

“Mini” art sessions and art club can’t make up for “precious” weeks of actual instruction, she claimed.

“Every moment you take away has a ripple effect down the road,” Holder said, adding that she feels “disheartened” by not being consulted about the change.

“I know trimesters are important, but there should be another way to do this. I wish I had had a seat at the table.”

The district later said there are three “specials” teachers on the scheduling committee. The SMS art teacher was, it said, “fully aware and involved in the process” and “was asked for and gave feedback to his representatives on the committee.”

Getman said everything depends on how the coming school year shakes out – reopening-wise. The plan as presented is based on a typical school day. If Somers has to go to full-on online learning mode, or even a hybrid schedule, things could change drastically.

The change in the 7th-grade art has nothing to do with the budget, the district said in a statement: “It is simply trying to fit in all the different puzzle pieces of the day, including other specials such as music, physical education, engineering, technology, and health.”

Somers, like every other school district, is waiting for guidance from the state before it can move forward.

As of Tuesday, it had “zero” idea of whether it was looking at a return to the “normal” classroom experience, a full distance-learning scenario, or a hybrid of both, said schools Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch.

Parents said they need answers ASAP. As the state slowly reopens, many of them are returning to work outside the home and need to plan accordingly.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday, July 6, that the state Department of Health, in consultation with the Reimagine Education Advisory Council, is finalizing guidance on the possible reopening of schools in September.

Albany has directed all 700 school districts in the state to develop reopening plans.

The Mid-Hudson Region, which includes Westchester and Putnam counties, was on track to enter Phase 4 Tuesday, July 7.

“There has been no decision yet as to whether or not we are reopening schools. We obviously very much would like to. Nobody even knows the effect that this is going to have on students, socialization of young students, et cetera,” Cuomo said.

“We want kids back in school for a number of reasons, but we’re not going to say children should go back to school until we know it’s safe. We have some time. This is a very fluid situation. When we get the data, we will make a decision” the governor added.

Getman also admitted to not having a crystal ball that could tell him exactly how the proposed schedule will look.

“There’s going to be a trial-and-error period, but I think where we’ll land is really offering some great experiences for our kids … and choice, which not too many kids have in middle school schedules,” he said.

Getman plans to host a PTA webinar on the subject later this month.

HOW IT WORKS

In a nutshell, SMS hopes to move to a trimester set-up. Each trimester lasts 13 weeks. In high school, the year is broken up into four pieces, allowing students to squeeze in different classes.

The committee’s goal was to provide more time per class period in the form of “blocks.”

According to Getman, this slows down the “sometimes frenetic pace of the day” and has worked well at the high school.

With seven rotating course periods, there would be five 52-minute classes in subjects like ELA, math, and social studies, per day. Two will be “dropped” every other day for PE, music, and other “specials,” such as health and technology.

There will be a 52-minute “call-back” period at the same time each day.

A “call back” period gives them more time to work on certain subjects. Once every five days, for instance, there’ll be an additional class in ELA, math or social studies, or science. A “tech experience” has also been added in the 6th grade.

In 7th and 8th grade, they’ll have that additional period in ELA, math, social studies, science, and world language.

The other periods rotate, which means kids will have different classes at different times. This allows them to take their most difficult classes — or their easiest — at times when they’re at their best or when flagging a bit at the end of the day.