A Re-Focus on The Middle School Master Schedule

Three tips for creating a responsive, student-centered schedule in the mid-post-COVID era

As kids return to school amid a changing education environment, a renewed focus has emerged on the master schedule and its wide impact on student success. We sat down with Ann McCarty Perez, author of The Successful Middle School Schedule, to hear how schools are thinking about scheduling and what skillsets leaders are going to need to be effective in creating the master schedule of the future.

Among the schools she’s worked with, some trends have emerged. “In general, she says, “I see two, connected things happening. There’s a focus on equity in scheduling and schools really want to make sure that their schedules are student centered. They genuinely want students to have a say.” Relatedly, schools are also grappling with how to make intervention and enrichment periods more meaningful and successful for students.

When thinking about equity in the schedule, Ann encourages school leaders to think critically about whether choice is present for all students and what policies are getting in the way of students being able to access the courses that they want or need. She recalls a few examples where well-meaning policies led to inequitable access. In one district, students had to have earned an A in 8th grade ELA to take Spanish 1 in high school (let that sink in). In another, students couldn’t enroll in high school honors classes if they didn’t complete a summer packet. She remembers asking the principal, “But what if a student moves to your area in August?”

To create an equitable and responsive schedule, and one that sets your students up for academic and personal success, Ann offers three key recommendations.

FIRST: Always let your data guide your decisions.

“Don’t build a schedule that you don’t need and that that’s not going to work for your students,” she cautions. This means taking hard, honest looks at your data. If it presents something actionable, you need to schedule around that. “It may be that you have to start building your schedule around a special population or around a group of students that you haven’t done that before.”

To accomplish this, school leaders should conduct a regular and comprehensive data review.  In The Successful Middle School Schedule, Ann lays out a data inquiry process to help the scheduling team ensure they’re considering all data sources and accurately seeing the cause-and-effect relationships. “Given the responsibility that the schedule has to facilitate everyday operations of the school, this step is vital.”

She points to one example from her time as a principal when a teacher proposed an idea during their data review that ended up having a huge impact on their students. “We had skills classes, and they were designed to give students more time in the content area,” she recalls. While analyzing the achievement gap of their EL students in math, an EL teachers asked if they could schedule the skills class before the math class as well as have the EL teacher be able to co-teach the math class. The idea was that they would preview the material with the kids before they got to the math class and be better prepared for the content. “In that one year we closed our achievement gap 26 points in mathematics.”

SECOND: Always be creative.   

Don’t be afraid to break the traditional scheduling rules, she says, “If you think there’s only one way to do something, that’s probably not true.”  Nothing is off the table when it comes to imagining how you create a school environment that is responsive to kids’ needs, “That’s why I love scheduling. The whole process allows you to rethink what you are doing, why you are doing it, and whether you need to be doing something different.” Because it’s based on your data, she explains, these are changes that are in the best interest of your students. “It’s hard to look at documented student need and say ‘I don’t want to do that.’”

THIRD: Know your staff.

In the book, Ann discusses the various “characters” on your staff that help to write the “story” of your master schedule. Putting the right people in the right roles is essential. And while it can be challenging in today’s educator shortage, she says taking the time to really know your staff and build relationships can make or break the effectiveness of a master schedule initiative – especially if you’re making big changes. “It doesn’t hurt to do personality or temperament surveys to get a feel for who is in the room when you’re working on the schedule. I can’t stress enough getting to know your staff on a deeper level so you know what they’re bringing and how their strengths can help in the process.”

For new administrators, she recommends surveying staff to ask what’s working and what they want to see changed before making significant adjustments. But at the end of the day, “you have to make the changes that you need to make that are in the best interest of the students,” she says, “Build your ‘why?’”

The Old is New Again

Overall this year, Ann observes that schools are more hopeful and cautiously optimistic, “They’re just excited to be back to the business of school.” She’s seeing a return to practices that were previously “tried and true” that worked, like professional learning communities and collaborative teams.

Beyond the educators themselves, there’s also been a renewed focus on the whole child, “The awareness that students have needs outside of academics, like social and emotional needs and mental health needs, has gotten really good traction not just in middle school but in high schools too.” She’s excited to see more high schools embedding SEL in their schedules – many similar in concept to middle school advisory.  “I think high schools have really grabbed onto that idea that middle schools have been doing for a long time.”


Ann McCarty Perez, Ed.D. is a passionate educator with more than 25 years of experience working in schools to improve processes and outcomes. She has been a middle school teacher, principal, and central office administrator for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Faculty and author of The Successful Middle School Schedule. See Ann live when she presents as a Featured Voice at #AMLE22: The 49th Annual Conference for Middle Level Education this November.