Mastering the master schedule pandemonium

September 5, 2019 — by Allison Hartley

It was a giant puzzle with no easy solution.

Ten department chairs, one counselor and one administrator worked together to arrange a grid-layout of classes in mid-March in a meeting room in the main office. As they tried to arrange the jigsaw of classes in the master schedule, chairs chimed in with suggestions, and civil negotiation took place to address concerns and imbalances within departments, such as a disproportionate number of seventh-period sections. 

Each department chair prepares for the master schedule meeting by calculating roughly how many sections of each class are needed based on student sign-ups, consulting with the district office to make sure that there are the right number of sections and corresponding teachers with sections. At the meeting, the chairs use their findings to organize the sections for a seven-period day. While some may enjoy the problem-solving nature of conceiving the master schedule, representing the department and arriving prepared may be stress-inducing to many, said guidance counselor Alinna Satake. 

The master schedule process, led by assistant principal Brian Safine and guidance counselor Alinna Satake, is hammered out each year between mid-March and April and is adjusted until just weeks before the beginning of the school year; for example, a section of a strategic learning class was added mere days before the first day of school. 

“We are hurrying, hurrying, hurrying, trying to get in a pretty firm master schedule before the summer break, but it always changes,” Satake said. “There are always a lot of moving pieces.”

To solve the puzzle of the master schedule, the team of administrators and department chairs generally begin with electives that are so-called singletons — classes with only one period such as Creative Writing or AP French. 

These classes are strategically placed on the seven-period day with consideration to students’ likely combinations of classes. For instance, singletons must be available to students who may take MAP classes on Blue Days. Then, they must pay extra attention when scheduling teachers who teach in two different departments, such as PE and history teacher Rick Ellis. 

The work of the four guidance counselors (Satake, Eileen Allen, Frances Saike and Monique Young) includes time for handling all of these responsibilities. While students go to school 180 days per year and teachers work 197 days per year, counselors must work 197 days per year with an extra two weeks on either end of the school year. At the end of the school year, counselors check grades and meet new families, including those with accommodations like individualized education plans (IEP) or 504 plans for students with disabilities. 

After a break in July, they come back on Aug. 1 to finish registering students, fixing waitlisted classes and changing classes. Although Aeries, the school’s grade reporting and information system, can automatically assign most students to schedules, counselors have to manually assign approximately 10 percent of students’ schedules to handle conflicts. During the Falcon Fest event in August they change students’ schedules. In the first four to five days of school, one counselor may field up to 30 schedule requests. Each counselor works a full day and into the evening making adjustments. 

Registrar Robert Wise said he counted at least 1,500 different schedule changes in the fall of 2018, the vast majority of which he and the counselors manually adjusted. 

Despite the counselors’ best efforts, scheduling to every student’s elective preferences and subsequent changes can be a “near impossible feat,” Allen said; both the staff and students must be open to compromise when classes are full, or when a student’s schedule cannot accommodate their desired classes. 

Overenrolled sections were common this year. There were 19 waitlisted students for full classes like ceramics and AP Computer Science, often eliciting frantic visits to the guidance office from students.

“We do everything that we can to avoid forcing those decisions for students,” Allen said. “It is the worst thing in the world when students come and want a change, and you can’t make it happen.” 

Starting this fall, students are not allowed to change classes based on period or teacher preference. Because of this, Allen speculates that there may have been slightly more schedule changes than in previous years from students switching between course levels.

Regardless of how students feel, what does the perfect schedule look like in a counselor’s eyes? While Allen said the perfect schedule may not exist, she loves to see “really great” schedules, where students undertake a combination of fun classes or classes that stir their passions with classes that require just the right amount of rigor.

When counselors craft just the right schedule for a student’s needs, “there’s totally a sense of satisfaction,” Allen said. “We want to help kids in any way that we can. It’s a difficult part of the job to say no sometimes, but it really teaches students to be flexible and resilient.”