Walk the hallways of Blue Valley Southwest High School at lunch time and you’ll see the entire school population spread throughout the entire campus.
Students gather in a classroom as a pair of seniors hold a meeting about a field trip for a business club.
A freshman meets one-on-one with a teacher in an empty classroom in the math corridor.
Other high schoolers socialize and eat lunch at go-to spots under stairwells, in courtyards or on the floor of the corridors near their next classes.
“You might think it’s chaos if you didn’t know what was happening,” said theater director and teacher Dan Schmidt, as he spent his students’ lunch hour overseeing voluntary rehearsals and chatting with drama students in the high school’s Black Box theater.
It’s not chaos. It’s “Timber Time,” an hour each day where Blue Valley Southwest High School students spend 60 minutes taking a break, seeking academic support or hosting extracurricular activities.
“Basically,” Principal Scott Roberts said, “students get an hour a day where they get to own their own time and choose how to spend it.”
Before last year, the school day at Blue Valley schools was a regimented affair, with lunch consumed during a 27-minute period, and time for extracurricular activities, extra classroom help and taking a breather left for teachers, students and staff to create after school.
But in the Blue Valley School District, and other local districts such as Olathe, school communities have rallied behind initiatives to give students time to be autonomous during the school day.
After pilot programs launched last year, all Blue Valley high schools have implemented a free hour for high schoolers for the full school year.
In nearby Olathe, school officials have debuted a “Power 50” model in their high schools — 50 minutes where students eat lunch, meet with teachers, do homework, gather for club meetings or simply take a break.
School officials have cited the method as a way to combat the over-prescribed schedules of high-achieving students, who have had little time for breaks or study halls during days jam-packed with academics, athletics and extracurricular activities.
But they say Timber Time and initiatives like it are not just an effort to give students a break from grueling curriculum or teach time management. It’s also a much needed opportunity for students to get extra help that they need.
For years, Roberts said, school officials have struggled with a tough reality. The time they needed to intervene on behalf of students who are falling behind simply wasn’t built into the school day.
Kids that needed help the most couldn’t always stay after school or forgo lunch to meet with teachers or staff.
“It was intervention through invitation,” Roberts said of the former school day. “We just didn’t feel like we were getting that time.”
In Olathe, graduates had also told school officials that they wished they had better access to teachers outside of the classroom setting, Olathe Schools spokesperson Maggie Kolb said.
“This was an awesome opportunity to offer our kids that chance to connect with a teacher,” Kolb said.
In the Blue Valley district, a survey shared with students, parents and staff last year showed overwhelming support for its implementation. Two high schools piloted the program at the start of the 2016-17 school year.
But the initiative was so popular that by Jan. 2016, all Blue Valley High schools decided to quickly jump on board.
Schmidt, the drama teacher, said the extra time is invaluable for his students, who were already using after-school and free time to put in extra work on productions and performances.
“It breaks up your time,” Schmidt said.
Before Timber Time, Blue Valley Southwest High School senior Katie Kudrna said students in the Delta Epsilon Chi Association, a marketing and business club, had to come to school at 7 a.m. in order to find time to meet. That made it difficult for any student without flexible transportation or the desire to come to school early to participate.
This year is different, she said.
She can finally catch up with friends who aren’t part of the CAPS programs she participates in during the afternoon. She can meet during the school with the Wolfpack, which plans student events. And interest in DECA has dramatically increased.
“Our membership has gone through the roof,” said Kudrna, who is DECA vice-president. “It is so much more accessible for students.”