Maximizing Student Success: The Benefits of Strategic School Scheduling Over Traditional Scheduling

Dr. Gering is a veteran educator, and former Chief Academic Officer for Spokane Public Schools. During his service in school districts, he was an award-winning principal, received the Golden Apple Award in Washington State, and presented at local and national conferences across the country. 

After starting his career as a teacher and coach in Texas, he attended graduate school at Harvard and earned his doctorate from the University of Washington. He is currently a member of the School Success Team at Abl, where he helps district leaders to understand and consider how district decision-making impacts student experiences— and educational equity.

I vividly remember the moment when I had an epiphany regarding strategic scheduling.  

I had been a school leader for years, mastering the technical aspects of scheduling at a large comprehensive high school. I could quickly produce an efficient schedule that aligned offerings with teaching resources and was optimized to meet student demand. The vast majority of students started the school year with a full schedule and the schedule was built to maximize high school graduation requirements and to live within our allocated budget; so we always had a smooth start to the year. We’d even pioneered approaches that in the 90s were considered cutting edge. Understanding the importance of student voice in the scheduling process, we partnered with a local software company to develop a method for students to build their own schedules, choosing their teachers and periods. Believing deep relationships were crucial for meeting student needs, we piloted a school-within-a-school model that utilized multiple base schedules. We were leaders in scheduling. I continued these technical approaches to scheduling at multiple high schools but did not see student outcomes dramatically moving. 

Frustrated, I took a deep dive into the student data and educational research. And this was the moment my thinking shifted. 

Investigating the data, we discovered that to meet the same graduation requirements, students at our school were taking entirely different combinations of coursework than students on the other side of the city. Our students were far less likely to request courses that met the minimum requirements to attend the local four-year college, while students from wealthier zip codes chose courses that made them more competitive for college admissions and were more likely to graduate ready for a variety of post-secondary options and experiences.

Scheduling evolved from being a limited and “right now” process to a more extensive and ongoing one where at every turn we asked, “what if?”

As we examined the data around postsecondary readiness, we also conducted a deep dive into the research. There was a large body of research over multiple decades that consistently painted the same story. Graduation by itself does not guarantee post-secondary success. The intensity of a student’s coursework is crucial in determining whether they attend college, persist in their studies, and complete a degree or certificate.

But, thumbing through my course catalog, I realized two things. First, we did not have a school-wide culture of all students pursuing intense, rigorous coursework.  Our school was largely organized around high school graduation and the push beyond that largely resided with individual students or families.  Second, I discovered that our most rigorous courses were not easily accessible to many students. These courses were often restricted by prerequisites, performance requirements, or arbitrary teacher recommendations, creating barriers to entry for many students. Without parental guidance or the luck of having the right counselor interaction, most students avoided challenging coursework, unknowingly impacting their post-secondary opportunities and success.  Unsurprisingly, but no less frustrating, these course selection patterns followed predictable racial and socio-economic divides. 

Armed with this new perspective that approached scheduling as a way to deliver sets of courses to students and no longer thinking of classes as discrete units, my approach to scheduling began to shift. I was paying attention to coursetaking patterns, analyzing enrollment trends, and making adjustments based on historical data and future projections. Scheduling evolved from being a limited and “right now” process to a more extensive and ongoing one where at every turn we asked, “what if?” Scheduling was now a year-long activity involving the entire building as we discussed our course offerings in the fall, how to recruit students into advanced coursework in the winter, and guiding our students as they selected courses in the spring.  

As a principal, I was able to lead this shift in thinking for my building, but the impact was limited to our students, and even at that small scale, it was challenging without readily available data. I spent far too much time creating custom tables and comparative analyses and quickly realized that I did not have the key, strategic data at my fingertips to make incredibly important scheduling decisions. I needed support and tools to assist in our strategic scheduling efforts.

My transition from traditional to strategic scheduling persisted as I continued my professional career. When I became a district leader, I prioritized examining the conditions that resulted in two schools within the same district offering vastly different academic experiences to their students. That was 15 years ago, and since then districts across the country have begun similar transformations, determined to create systems in which success isn’t dependent on luck or generational advantage. 

It’s inspiring to see the conversation shift to prioritizing post-secondary readiness for every student, regardless of where they think they might be headed after high school. As leaders in education, it’s our responsibility to ensure that when a student graduates, every possibility is available to them. There will undoubtedly be obstacles in the way, but lacking a strong academic background should not be one of them. 

I am excited to witness the next decade of innovation in school operations and scheduling. Every student deserves an education that accounts for their unique passions, past experiences, and future ambitions. The intensity of coursework that students complete tremendously impacts the opportunities available to a student after graduation.