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The Makings of a High School Student's Schedule

Updated on November 6, 2015

While there are many aspects to a guidance counselor’s job, the one they are primarily known for is changing schedules. Over ten years, as a counselor, I’ve seen a lot of unhappy students, as well as their unhappy mommies and daddies when it comes to class schedules. I have seen this unhappiness manifest in many ways, and have had the following questions frequently fired at me with regard to my role in their student’s schedule: “Why do you have the students choose classes, if you are just going to pick them in the end anyway?”; Why do you need a Master's Degree to do what you do, especially if you can’t create an easy schedule?”; “Do you know how to do your job?” I think the last one is my favorite.

Even though I would like to think that I know how to do my job, the truth is that there are a lot of factors that go into the making of a high school student’s schedule. It isn’t simply a matter of hitting a few buttons on the keyboard, in which some omniscient computer program can then generate an ideal schedule. No, it is much more complicated than that. In fact, there are many behind-the-scenes variables that come into play when forming the Master Schedule, which significantly affect the creating and class placement of a student’s schedule.

When it comes to an unsavory schedule, don't F-bomb the guidance counselor, F-bomb the education system.
When it comes to an unsavory schedule, don't F-bomb the guidance counselor, F-bomb the education system. | Source

Creating the Master Schedule

The Master Schedule is essentially the school’s entire schedule that lays out which teacher is teaching what subject and when during the day. Establishing this master plan is quite a process. Most traditional schools that begin the school year in late August or early September, typically start the planning of the Master Schedule in January or February of the previous school year.

While most schools don’t send out updates to the community about the progress made on the Master Schedule - it’s much more exciting to read about student accomplishments rather than Mr. Johnson’s prep period for the following year –there usually is an area of the school that houses a large-scale version of this schematic. This tangible Master Schedule may be seen in a conference room or taking up precious wall space in some counselor’s office. When glancing at the board for the first time, it may resemble a game of Tetris in that there are a plethora of multi-colored tiles that seem to be awaiting some logical configuration. But these tiles are the building blocks of the Master Schedule in that they have names and teachers written on them, along with all the classes that are taught in the school.

If you are new to the teaching profession it may seem like a funny April Fool’s joke to take all these little tiles and arrange them into a happy face. I highly advise against this however, since come early fall you won’t be smiling after you have seen how the counselors have arranged your class roles. A stunt like this could result in a class full of undesirables.

Educators can stare at this board of tiles for endless hours as they plan out the Master Schedule. By creating this visual layout of all the teachers’ schedules, it makes it much easier to see what problems might exist before plugging the line-up into the computer program that generates the students' schedules. For example, while most teachers would love to have their prep period as the last school period of the day, establishing this into the school’s master plan would not be feasible. If every teacher were given prep as their final class of the day, there would be no classes for the students to attend that period. A Master Schedule as to be balanced enough so that there is an equal distribution, more or less, of prep periods across the day, as well as class subjects.

Building the Master Schedule can be a challenging puzzle.
Building the Master Schedule can be a challenging puzzle. | Source

The Conflicts

Often times, parents and students will want to change around the assigned schedule so that certain classes occur at certain times of the day. As a counselor, I’ve had parents come in wanting P.E. as their student’s last class of the day, reasoning that their student “would prefer not to have to do any thinking at the end of the day.” If counselors received a bonus dollar for every time they dealt with a request like this, most would be able to enjoy an early retirement.

Counselors can’t accommodate all of these request for obvious reasons. Otherwise, PE classes at the end of the day could have 100 or more students in these classes. That’s a lot of sweaty bodies for one teacher to endure.

Using this scenario, another problem that could come into play is that the school may choose to not offer any PE classes at the end of the day. This decision may could be made for a few reasons. First of all, it may be decided that the gym needs to be free of classes at the end of the day to set up for afterschool activities and or sports competitions that are taking place. Sports such as basketball and wrestling have a tendency to have frequent competitions and accompanying preparation, so many schools prefer to have a gym free of classes at the end of the day during these seasons.

Related to this, certain teachers that also serve as athletic coaches may be granted prep that final period of the day to help with the demands of their respective sports duties. So if the popular U.S. History teacher also happens to be the swim coach (and granted prep period at the end of the day) students won’t be able to have him or her as their final class of the day.

Finally, a gymnasium can only house so many classes at one time which needs to be considered when making the Master Schedule. If a school decides not to offer any PE classes at the end of the day for sports preparation, and if the period before can only accommodate two tenth grade PE classes, it becomes clearer to see how scheduling conflicts can occur.


Dollars and Seats

In the world of public education, just about everything is determined by funding; this is especially true when it comes to the classes offered and the class size. Most often, the school district office tells the each school their budget, and it is up to the school to use each dollar effectively. Unfortunately, this is where scheduling can get tricky.

Let’s say that after the counselors have conducted their school’s registration process that only eight students signed up for Advanced European History. Because this would not meet the school district’s imposed standard of class size, funding such a small class would not be cost-efficient. Therefore, counselors and administrators are left with a choice – either stick other students (who did not sign up for the class) into the class in order to reach that standard class size, or take away the class and place the eight students in other classes that do have seats. Either way, there are going to be unhappy students. This situation happens frequently, and that is why students end up with classes they did not select.

This same undesirable outcome can also occur when too many students have selected a class. If instead of eight students signing up for the Advanced European class, let’s say 46 students signed up for the class. If the cap for the class is 32 students, 14 students would be left without a class. Since creating another section of the class for 14 students would not be viewed as a smart move in terms of stretching the budget, again this results in a situation where students are going to have to be placed in an alternate course.

A Solution

Having more money built into the school’s scheduling budget would be the easy solution, but one that will probably remain in the dreams of educators. However, as a counselor, I have, and continue to advise students to list alternate classes on their registration form -- even if these other classes are only the lesser of the evils in terms of undesired classes. While scheduling conflicts are bound to happen, counselors usually do try to place students in a second choice course. And if nothing is listed, it is up to the counselor to fill up those classes that may have a reputation of being disagreeable by students - especially for those who have wound up in them in previous years.


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