Is Your School Schedule Flexible?

Flexible organizational structures place the locus of control in the hands of teachers

Early leaders of the middle school concept established the goal of flexible organizational structures. But what is flexibility? The answer might include

  • The utilization of opportunities to make change
  • The absence of rigidity
  • An openness to various ways of implementing decisions, programs, or policies
  • Recognition of the unique needs of individuals

The term organizational structures suggests that schools are organized with a definite curriculum and timetable for teachers and students, including one bell schedule for the entire building. The locus of control is in the hands of the principal.

Many middle level schools are organized on this structured premise, which may occur because building administrators are not fully aware, or comfortable with, methods to empower teachers to make decisions about time. Other causes for greater structure are:

  • Certification or licensure of teachers
  • Curriculum offerings outlining frequency of class meetings
  • Terms of the teachers’ contract regarding the number of periods per day a teacher may be with students and involved in collaboration
  • Past practices of the school or district

How then have so many middle level schools succeeded in implementing the vision of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) for a developmentally responsive middle level school, as expressed in This We Believe (NMSA, 2010), calling for flexible organizational structures?

Introducing Interdisciplinary-Maximum Flexibility

The first step toward flexibility is to create an interdisciplinary-maximum flexibility schedule, which occurs when the same teachers are assigned the same group of students for the same periods of the day and receive common planning time.

Core Team

Subject 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
LA CT 01 CT 02 03 L TM P 04 05 l
SS 01 02 03 L TM P 04 05 l
Math Pre-Alg 01 M 7-01 CT M7-02 L TM P Pre-Alg 02 CT M7-03 l
Science 01 02 03 L TM P 04 05 l
Spanish l-01 ll-02 l-02 L TM P l-03 ll-02 l
Sp.Ed. CT LA 01 CT LA 02 CT M7-02 L TM Support P CT M7-03 l

Five core teachers (language arts, social studies, mathematics, science and Spanish) are assigned the same 125-130 students for periods 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, and 9. A special education teacher, also considered a team member, enables co-teaching, offers replacement courses or provides additional support as called for in the IEP. Lunch (L) is scheduled period 4; team meeting (TM), period 5; and individual planning (P), period 6. Period 9 is an intervention period (I) for teachers to provide additional support, remediation, or enrichment.

Within the same periods (1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9) students can be individually scheduled. Classes need not travel together during the day. Co-teaching, pre-algebra, and levels I or II of Spanish are offered. Assignments for intervention are based on student needs or opportunities for enrichment at a given point in time during the school year. All students in the example above are assigned to exploratory classes during periods 5 and 6 where team meetings (TM) can be arranged.

Opportunities for the interdisciplinary- maximum flexibility approach exist in the exploratory portion of the schedule. Students are assigned physical education daily and a trimester of art, music, and technology during the complementary period.

Exploratory Team

Subject 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
PE 1 8 8 TM L 7 7 P 6 6
PE 2 8 8 TM L 7 7 P 6 6
Art 8 8 TM L 7 7 P 6 6
Music 8 8 TM L 7 7 P 6 6
Technology 8 8 TM L 7 7 P 6 6

Blueprint for Schedule

A key in developing interdisciplinary-maximum flexibility schedules lies in the design of blueprints, or preliminary plans for schedules. Blueprints should feature consecutive core as well as consecutive exploratory periods to maximize opportunities for flexibility.

Traditional Nine-Period Day

Period Grade 6 Grade 7 Grade 8
1 Core Core Explo
2 Core Core Explo
3 Core Core Core
4 Lunch FAI Core
5 Core Lunch FAI
6 Core Explo Lunch
7 FAI Explo Core
8 Explo Core Core
9 Explo Core Core

Day 1/Day 2 Schedule

Periods Grade 6 Grade 7 Grade 8
1 & 5 Explo Core (w/FAI) Core
2 & 6 Core Explo Core (w/FAI)
3 & 7 Core (w/lunch) Core (w/lunch) Core (w/lunch)
4 & 8 Core (w/FAI) Core Explo

Examples of Flexibility

Once the interdisciplinary-maximum flexibility model is created, cohorts of teachers have numerous opportunities to implement and manage the flexibility factor. With professional development, teachers will control time and address the unique learning needs of young adolescent students. Possibilities include:

Altering the Sequence of Classes

Within the core or exploratory blocks of time, the sequence of classes can be changed. Students and teachers are different at various time of the day. The core schedule could rotate so periods 7, 8, 9 are in the morning with periods 1, 2, 3 in the afternoon; or, the sequence in the morning could be periods 3, 2, 1 and the afternoon 9, 8, 7. The intervention period could be relocated to any of the designated core periods. These decisions are made by each interdisciplinary team.

In addition, the exploratory team could reverse the sequence of periods 2 and 1, 6 and 5, and 9 and 8. Each team should determine ways to inform the administration and office personnel of changes.

Grouping and Regrouping of Students
Beyond the first day of school, teams of teachers can group and regroup students. A strong mathematics student could be moved from a mathematics 7 class to pre-algebra. A student struggling in Spanish II could be reassigned to Spanish I.

In each case, the student remains with the same core teachers. Recommendations for these changes begin in team meetings and are monitored after the change. Changes can be made in the groupings for exploratory courses as well; and, the intervention period should enable the greatest opportunity for regrouping as teachers utilize common planning time to monitor student progress, needs and interests.

Adjusting the Length of Instructional Modules
Some middle schools are organized on a traditional 8 or 9 period day while others are structured on a day 1/day 2 basis with four 80- to 90-minute classes on day 1 and four 80- to 90-minute classes on day 2. In traditional schedules, lunch may be scheduled for a full period or a shorter module of time whereas in the day 1/day 2 schedule, lunch is built into modules 3 and 7.

In either case, adjustments are possible. A school organized as an 8 or 9 period day could create extended time periods by doing one-half of the classes on day 1 and the other half on day 2. Another possibility is for individual teams to arrange three periods on day 1 and three periods on day 2 within their six periods. Conversely, a school organized on a day 1/day 2 model could shift to 45-minute classes before or after a holiday or following a school closing for inclement weather.

Exploratory teams may extend time when desired. Based on the specifics of the schedule, exploratory teachers may arrange for double periods in a traditional 8- or 9-period day. In a day 1/day 2 schedule, the 80-90-minute block could be subdivided into 45-minute sessions.

Four factors are key to the utilization of this flexibility: (1) the schedule should feature the greatest number of consecutive core and consecutive exploratory periods, (2) details providing a variation of lunch periods must be known to cafeteria staff, teachers, and students, (3) provision exists to locate students in the event of need, and (4) teachers are comfortable making decisions as a team.

Using Large Group Instruction
Large group instruction is used in specific situations. Examples: films or videos presented to the entire interdisciplinary team at the same time, guest speakers, major activities for interdisciplinary units or aspects of a service project. Presentations are a teaching and learning experience. Attention span limits should be acknowledged, and students should have opportunities for active involvement. The value of this strategy is to assemble all students of a team during a core period without pulling students from exploratory classes.

Using a Flex/Advisory/Intervention Period (FAI)
Teams have some measure of control over FAI periods. Time is typically devoted to

    • Extra time for core instruction
    • Opportunity for students to work on project-based learning engagements
    • Advisory lessons
    • Intervention programs
    • Support for IEP goals and English language learners

Flexible organizational structures are the prerequisite for teams of teachers to control time and address the unique needs of students on that team. Teachers are encouraged to implement and be creative with the modalities introduced.

Team Meetings: The Flexibility Control Center

The ultimate responsibility for managing time and enhancing flexibility should be viewed in the context of the comprehensive role and function of an interdisciplinary team including:

  1. Responding to the unique needs of young adolescent students, including data
  2. Curriculum integration
  3. Appropriate teaching/learning strategies
  4. Managing time/flexible scheduling

Rather than viewing flexibility as one item on the agenda, time management should be the outcome of the total role and function of teams.


An interdisciplinary-maximum flexibility schedule sets the stage for teachers to manage time. Flexible organizational structures place the locus of control in the hands of teachers, empowering them to make decisions that best address the needs of young adolescent learners.


National Middle School Association [NMSA]. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.