On Schedule: Rivers Shifts to Semester System

When students return to campus next fall, various high-profile improvements to campus infrastructure will be underway or completed. But another change in the works, though less immediately visible, will also have a significant impact on student experience.
September 2021 will mark a shift in the Rivers academic calendar, from a trimester system to a semester system. It might not sound like a major departure, but the hope is that it will have a positive effect on student well-being, health, and learning, allowing all students to reach their full potential without experiencing undue stress.
Student stress has been a much-discussed topic during the COVID era, but the process of shifting the academic calendar at Rivers predates the pandemic. In a recent webinar explaining the new schedule to parents and community members, Upper School Dean of Faculty Leslie Fraser noted, “The journey that led us to this decision began in the fall of 2019—in a pre-COVID world.” It started, she continued, with a broad, substantive initiative designed to assess how Upper School students felt about their academic experience. Among the metrics were how much students enjoyed their classes and what they were learning, how happy students felt, what their stress levels were at various times of the year, and how well prepared they were for college. The results of that initiative pointed the way toward improving the student experience.
During the webinar, Upper School Dean of Students Will Mills detailed the “deep dive” that the school took to determine just what kind of changes were needed. Five students from each grade were followed as “case studies,” filling out weekly journals and meeting bi-monthly with faculty members. The whole student body was also surveyed multiple times, asked about such topics as workload, stress points, balancing academics with co-curricular activities, and commuting. Alumni were also surveyed about their experience carrying their Rivers education into college.
The results backed up the anecdotal evidence that had long been felt on campus: that the pacing and timing of the academic calendar created numerous stress points throughout the year—times when the workload threatened to go from rigorous to overwhelming. As Mills put it, “We know that students do their best work, and grow to their full potential, when they are engaged and rested and have the appropriate time and space to devote to their tasks at hand. And while there is value in learning to perform under a certain amount of pressure or stress, there is a tipping point beyond which individuals can’t be productive and students are unable to apply themselves fully.” The assessment process itself, he added, was “classic Rivers”: “It epitomized how I’ve always known Rivers to operate, with adults and students working side by side to identify how we can be better as a community.”
Fraser explained that the trimester system, with its six grading periods (a midterm and final period for each trimester), resulted in too-frequent stress points. “We feel that by moving to semesters, we create a better flow for courses, whether they be year-long or one-semester courses. Semesters expand the time between grading periods, creating space for teachers to spread assignments out.” Faculty support the move, she added, and particularly welcome the semester model for electives that might feel rushed in a trimester; semesters, said Fraser, allow “greater depth of coverage and more time for students to demonstrate what they have learned.”
Upper School Assistant Dean of Faculty Chris Dalton walked the webinar audience through the specifics of the new schedule. He shared a slide of where the assessments occur in the trimester model: essentially in October, November/December, January, March, April/May, and June. The red lines marking assessments on a schematic of the school year appeared frequent and close together. In Dalton’s next slide, the same type of schematic showed four assessment periods, widely spaced: First interim (end of October), first semester (mid-January), second interim (March), and second semester (June).
“We’re all really excited for the opportunities created by this less interrupted flow to our academic year and the continuity of learning it creates,” said Dalton. He added that while there will be no change in the array of year-long courses offered, elective courses will increase in number and will be more immersive, hands-on learning experiences, with more time to explore topics in depth. “This will be especially evident in our science and art electives,” said Dalton.
Head of the Upper School Jim Long concluded with remarks about course counseling meetings and their vital importance, now more than ever, as the school shifts to a semester model. These one-on-one meetings serve various purposes, but chief among them, said Long, is to “look backward for understanding and forward for purpose. Each student is given the opportunity to reflect on their year, while beginning to solidify their schedule and goals for next year.” This supports the broader Rivers approach of building relationships, making sure each student is seen and known. “The purpose is not simply to have relationships with your child,” said Long, “but to help them connect with their unique potential as they progress through our Upper School.” And under the new semester system, that progress promises to be richer, deeper, more productive, and less stressful.