Belgrade schools students are spending one less hour in their classrooms every Friday, thanks to a new system meant to increase collaboration and curriculum planning among the teachers.

Curriculum Director Mark Halgren said that while parents and teachers had to make some adjustments to accommodate the schedule change, he believes that the effort so far has been worth it.

“I’ve been hearing good feedback from teachers and principals,” Halgren said of the system that began at the start of this academic year. “The groups I’ve worked with the last three weeks are really working hard.”

Halgren said the new planning hour has been built into the weekly schedule so that teachers can compare student achievement data, share teaching techniques, and make collaborative decisions about curriculum within grade levels or departments.

Halgren added that the so-called team-based “PLC,” or professional learning community, concept has been employed successfully in other districts, including in Bozeman. However, because Bozeman’s teachers have a different contract, their planning does not take place during instructional hours.

Halgren said that a number of studies have been published about the benefits of professional learning communities, including improved professional relationships and cooperation within departments.

“We’re very supportive of it,” he said, adding that Belgrade schools are committed to trying PLC for the long haul.

In addition, Belgrade educators heard a presentation by Matt Vaudrey, a proponent of standards based grading, on Monday this week.

Halgren said the SBG system – which evaluates student achievement on a pre-determined set of standards, rather than through assignment of a letter grade – has been in place at the elementary level in Belgrade for some time, and also has been considered at the high school level.

“The feedback from K-4 parents has been overwhelmingly positive,” Halgren said, adding that there is some pressure now to expand the system into higher grades.

The biggest advantage of the system is that students understand exactly which standards or skills they have achieved, and which they still need to improve. Letter grades don’t provide the same level of clarity, Halgren said.

However, he acknowledged that making the switch would not be easy, and that care would have to be taken to ensure that Belgrade students would not be penalized on college applications because of the different grading system.

“I don’t think we’re ready to jump into that at the high school,” he said. “It is possible to take a standards-based score and change it to a grade score, but we need to have a consistent way to transitioning.

“We don’t want our kids to be at a disadvantage,” he added.

Halgren said it is possible that Belgrade secondary teachers might move to a standards-based system of teaching without implementing the standards-based grading.