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Three Steps to a Strategic Schedule

Putting your school priorities into action

Making school schedules is something district and school leaders must do every year — but during COVID-19, that job has just gotten harder. We've created a set of COVID Comeback Models that include possible student groups, schedules, staff roles and more for district and school leaders planning for a safe shift to hybrid models. To explore the models and learn more about how to manage design in a continuously changing context, click below.


School curricula across the country have dynamically evolved in response to rigorous college- and career-ready standards, yet school schedules have largely remained the same. They roll over, intact, from one year to the next for many reasons: insufficient time, misaligned district timelines, or uncertainty toward finding a solution that fits the needs of a school.  As school teams reflect at the year-end on what worked, what didn’t, and what could be even better in the coming year, we recommend this three-step process that removes barriers and provides tools that school teams can use to make the most of their time and build a strategic schedule.

Step One: Reflect and set priorities

A school’s master schedule defines which teachers meet with which students, for how long, and about what topics. The priorities it represents, whether explicit or implicit, are a critical aspect of defining how learning takes place in the school. Setting explicit priorities, and expressing their relative importance, is therefore one of the most critical steps of developing a strategic schedule. By beginning their process with our new Strategic Scheduling Checklist, school teams can reflect on what their schedules currently accomplish and prioritize areas for change. We based the checklist on six major goals we’ve seen strategic schedules accomplish, such as optimizing the student experience, maximizing instructional time, and supporting teachers. School teams can use their reflection on this checklist as the foundation for bringing their instructional vision to life within the concrete, daily experiences of teachers and students.

Step Two: Explore schedule options, trade-offs, and staffing implications

School teams can use myriad tactical schedule solutions to meet their priorities. This step is about identifying options, considering trade-offs, understanding staffing implications, and finally selecting options that are the best fit. Setting aside time to explore a variety of schedule options is critically important to understanding how to best develop a schedule that meets school needs. We recommend visiting other schools to see different schedules in action, or when that may not be possible, reading case studies like Reimagining the School Day” or School Designs in Action” to learn about various options and their tradeoffs. The number and length of periods are examples of scheduling trade-offs that school teams often face when thinking about their schedule. For example, a block schedule with fewer, longer periods can provide more time for different instructional methods and reduce the number of topics students must focus on at any given time. The trade-off is that student attention could wane over long periods of time. Understanding the staffing implications of each option and the subsequent potential cost are critical aspects of the review process. School teams can use our Staffing Tool to determine the total number and types of teachers needed for various options based on the number of periods, course offerings, and projected enrollment. After reviewing schedule options, school teams can decide what schedule components they want and can feasibly incorporate into their schedules. When schools have decided on their schedule, they can also draft teacher assignments based on the courses and sections needed with the staffing tool, a particularly helpful feature for secondary school teams.

Step Three: Design the schedule

Once school teams reflect on their priorities, consider their options, and select the best schedule components, they can create a master schedule. School teams can experiment with putting the pieces together with our Elementary and Secondary School Master Scheduling Tools on their way to creating a bell schedule, master schedule, teacher assignments, and student assignments that meet school priorities with the available resources. Beginning with an instructional vision and priorities, school teams can move through a series of steps in this excel tool to create a master schedule and administrative calendars.

Putting it all together: Example of building collaborative planning time into the schedule

A high school principal and their design team in a large urban district we recently worked with reflected on their schedule, collected additional staff input, and identified a few scheduling priorities for the upcoming year:

1. More collaborative planning time for teachers. Teaching teams only had 50 minutes of planning time each week.

2. Fewer daily courses. The team felt like students were struggling with the workload associated with seven daily courses.

3. Additional time in certain core subjects. Most students were struggling in ELA and math, so the team felt students would benefit from more time in these subjects relative to others. At the same time, they also wanted to ensure students could participate in the engaging enrichment classes the school had to offer. 

After reviewing several options, the team narrowed their options to one: a block schedule where students would take math and ELA each day and alternate science, social studies, and electives on an A/B schedule. This solution allowed teachers to have almost 90 minutes each week to plan with each other, it reduced the students’ daily course load from seven classes to four, and it allowed students to spend 7,000 more minutes in a subject in which they were struggling over the course of the year. At the same time, because the new schedule operated on a base of eight periods over two days versus the six daily periods in the current schedule, students could still take enrichment courses. The team recognized that this schedule would be more expensive because it increased teacher planning time, so it converted several non-instructional positions into teaching positions to lessen the impact. Moreover, they also offered professional development over the summer and throughout the year to support teachers in effectively teaching and engaging students for 90-minute blocks.

Additional Resources

  • School Designer is one-stop shop for strategic school design that provides step-by-step guidance, links to related resources, and much more.
  • School check is a self-assessment that school teams can use to determine how well their resource use stacks up against the three principles excellent teaching for all students, personalized learning and supporting, and cost effectiveness through creative solutions.
  • Reimagining the School Day is the Center for American Progress paper that shows various schedule solutions that bring school design elements to life. 
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