Building Strong Secondary Schedules: Two Practices to Consider Now

10-minute read

While it feels like the school year has just gotten underway, initial planning for next year’s secondary schedule has already begun in many districts. Based on DMGroup’s experience working with secondary schools across the country, we want to remind school and district leaders of two key practices to consider in the initial planning phase of creating secondary schedules:

1. Differentiate “Must Have” Priorities from “Nice to Have” Priorities

“You can schedule anything--just not everything” is a common refrain of many expert schedulers. Establishing clear but manageable priorities is a crucial first step and can help ensure that school and district resources are deployed in as an intentional and equitable way as possible.

We recommend taking a hard look at your list of priorities and differentiating between your “Must Have” priorities and your “Nice to Have” priorities.


One middle school that DMGroup worked with listed the following priorities at the beginning of its scheduling process:

Initial Scheduling Priorities

  • Double-block of math for all students
  • 6th graders must have math at the same time
  • All students take a world language every day
  • Staff receive common planning time every day
  • Intervention courses taught by content-strong teachers
  • Students who struggle with reading enrolled in a reading course
  • English teachers have a common planning time 3rd period

The scheduling team quickly realized it would be impossible to accomplish all of these priorities given the various constraints of their schedules.

Further discussions among the scheduling team led to a more manageable and segmented list of priorities:

“Must Have” Priorities

  • All students who struggle with reading are enrolled in a reading course
  • Intervention courses are taught by content-strong teachers
  • Staff get common planning time with their department

“Nice to Have” Priorities

  • Double-block of math for all students
  • 6th graders must have math at the same time
  • All students take a world language every day
  • English teachers have a common planning time 3rd period

School schedulers now had clear guidance to navigate potentially tricky tradeoffs as they built the schedule, which also allowed them to be transparent in their decision-making with the rest of the staff. This ultimately helped the scheduling team build a schedule that was better aligned with student needs while also satisfying teacher preferences.

Reality Check

How do your stated priorities align with your current practices? DMGroup recommends examining your current school schedule — adding up where time is currently spent and analyzing what activities or types of coursework receive the most time during the day. This exercise will reveal what your priorities have been —whether these have been intentional priorities or default priorities. Gaining a clear and shared understanding of your current practices will help the school/district forge a path to achieve the “must-have” priorities.

2. Approach Scheduling as a Team Sport

Master building schedules are highly interconnected and impact the schedules of multiple staff members. Yet, in many districts, scheduling is done in a vacuum, often by one person or a small group of people who seldom involve those outside the group.

When building your schedules, it is important to keep this interconnected web in mind. Approaching schedule building as a team sport can help align schedules and ensure that they meet the needs of all students and staff. Principals should work with a school-based team on a roughly bi-weekly basis over the course of the winter and spring to develop schedules, explore trade-offs, and make adjustments to schedules.

To approach scheduling as a team sport, principals should consider involving individuals from the following groups:

  1. Department and/or grade-level heads
  2. Special education teacher, ESL teacher, and/or related services staff
  3. Student and/or family members
  4. Leaders of other schools with whom the school shares staff or space
  5. Scheduling expert (this could be a teacher, counselor, assistant principal, or district staff member who is an expert in building the actual schedule)

(The scheduling expert should be someone who has exhibited technical strength or expertise in building schedules. If you do not have anyone on staff with this expertise, consider bringing in third-party expertise. Partnering with a district or external expert scheduler who understands the nuances and tricks of scheduling software can often save school leaders many long hours of frustration and help them avoid settling for a less-than-ideal master schedule.)

The scheduling team must be empowered to advise on many of the key decisions regarding the schedule structure, priorities, and allocation of time. This team should also be responsible for helping communicate, champion, and train staff on the schedule, especially if there are significant changes to the schedule.

In summary, strong schedulers and school leaders view building a secondary school schedule not just as a technical challenge to be solved but rather as an opportunity to review and improve how resources are allocated across the school. They set compelling and manageable priorities and approach scheduling in an inclusive way by working with a team.

DMGroup and our scheduling team work with hundreds of schools across the country and seek to share the best-emerging practices that we encounter. Do you have secondary scheduling practices that are working well in your school? Email us using to share.

Are you interested in developing your school or district team's capacity to plan, build, and implement a best-in-class schedule at the middle school or high school level? Join us for our Secondary Scheduling Institute.