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Creating a Comprehensive K–8 Master School Schedule

By Jim Colyott, January 12, 2022

It is a new year with new excitement, new goals, and new challenges to overcome. Many administrators, teachers, and students throughout the country are reengaged with learning either in-person or virtually after a well-deserved winter break! 

Although we are only at the midpoint of this current school year, it is time for schools to start planning for the next school year. Seriously!? Yes, seriously! It is time to think about creating the “master schedule.”  

Why should I start working on the master schedule for next year so early? 

Creating the master schedule for elementary and middle schools is not just determining time and location logistics, not just identifying teachers’ plan times, not just clarifying student lunch times, not just for identifying when bells ring, and definitely not just taking last year’s schedule and changing teacher names. Scheduling is one of the most important tasks a school leader can accomplish during the school year. It lays the foundation to ensure all students are provided an equal opportunity to learn the necessary curricula, receive adequate opportunities for interventions, and are given sufficient time for a nonstressful lunch period. Furthermore, a high-quality master schedule may help minimize the stress and anxiety of the entire student body and staff for the duration of the school year.

I won’t recommend whether to use computer software to assist in the scheduling process or what type of format to use to produce the final schedule. However, I will outline four key recommendations when creating the master schedule: (1) ensure stakeholder collaboration, (2) set a clear timeline, (3) consider the details, and (4) demonstrate effective leadership.

1. Ensure stakeholder collaboration.

Although typically the schedule is a brief document that provides an overall picture of the logistical operation of the school, it is a collection of complex information that is often difficult to make concise and easily comprehensible. Thus, it is essential for school leaders to start the process early and obtain valuable feedback from multiple stakeholders and school staff members. Ideally, the school principal should identify a scheduling team that includes the following: an assistant principal (if applicable), teacher representatives from all grade levels and subject areas (including special areas), an office staff member, a technology staff member, a custodial/maintenance staff member, a kitchen/cafeteria staff member, a member of the transportation department (if applicable), and a member of any shared service partnerships (if applicable). Additional team members may be considered depending on the makeup of your school and community. Before the scheduling team produces a final schedule, they should engage student and parent advisory groups, as well as consider holding an open forum for the community to provide input. It is also important for the principal to keep the superintendent informed of progress along the way for consideration of the schedule’s impact on other buildings and shared services. 

2. Set a clear timeline.

The timeline for creating the schedule is extremely important and should be shared with the full staff, and perhaps even on the school’s web page for transparency. It is important to create a clear timeline from the beginning of the process so all stakeholders are confident in the process and aware of when the final schedule will be produced. With a clear timeline in place, and a team working together through a clear structure, expectations are likely to be met. This timeline should (a) include the beginning of the scheduling process, (b) include the timeline for choosing the scheduling team, (c) include the anticipated number of meetings to be held including times and locations, (d) indicate input opportunities for advisory groups and open forums, (e) indicate opportunities for all staff to review, (f) indicate anticipated dates for presentation to the superintendent and/or board of education, and (g) outline a final distribution date for all staff. Establishing a clear process and timeline for creating the master schedule will be a positive contribution to the school culture and may mitigate misunderstandings and large issues in the future.  

3. Consider the details.

There will be hundreds of details to consider when creating the master schedule. So where should you start? The scheduling team should consider the following questions when designing the master schedule:

  • What are the maximum capacities of our school building locations, including classrooms, entrances, foyers, cafeterias, gymnasiums, auditoriums, and libraries?  
  • What are the contractual individual teacher preparation time and team planning time requirements, and any other union requirements for our schedule? 
  • Should we adjust the length of the school day, start and end times, or length of class periods? Should we use passing periods or advisory periods in our design? What impact will these changes have on our bus routes?  
  • Should we relocate any grade-level or special classrooms, create grade-level wings, or design central intervention areas to minimize hallway traffic?  
  • Should we adjust the number of lunch periods and serving lines or redesign our student hallway traffic flow during lunch periods to minimize disruptions to other classes in session? 
  • Should we adjust the frequency or duration of special classes (art, music, physical education, library, technology, interventions, etc.) to maximize the availability of shared staff, classroom space, gymnasium space, or auxiliary spaces?  
  • Should we use carts to deliver any special instruction due to space limitations in full-size classrooms? 
  • Should we adjust to/from block schedules for certain subjects to maximize educational impact (ELA, math, interventions) and streamline transitions of supporting staff (reading specialists, instructional coaches, etc.)? 
  • Should we include supervision assignments in the final schedule (lunch hour, recess, before school, after school) for efficiency and clarity?

4. Demonstrate effective leadership. 

Preparing the schedule for the next school year is a perfect opportunity for the scheduling team to demonstrate effective leadership for all stakeholders in the school and community. The principal and scheduling team should consider the following questions throughout the scheduling process:  

  • Are all school stakeholders informed of the details of the scheduling process before it begins? 
  • Are we using a collaborative approach to creating the master schedule that ensures all stakeholders will have an opportunity to provide feedback into the design and construction? 
  • Is the scheduling team committed to considering all options that surface during the process? 
  • Are we communicating about the scheduling process and our teams’ progress in a positive and professional manner, in person and through writing? 
  • Are we maintaining a clear focus on the primary purpose of the master school schedule (to maximize the learning opportunities for all students)? 

So, whether you are a board member, an administrator, a teacher, support staff, a parent, a student, or a stakeholder, start the new year with a focus on how you can support your school’s scheduling process these next few months to maximize student learning. Reach out to the principal and offer your time and energy to support the scheduling process in your school for the overall benefit of the students, staff, and parents.  

James Colyott, EdS, leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s teacher recruitment, retention, and recognition project with the Illinois State Board of Education and is in his 7th year as a technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. In addition, he has more than 20 years of experience in public education, including 7 years as a school district superintendent.