Solving the Programming Puzzle: How Payton’s Course Schedules Are Created

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Dr. Phyllis Burstein, Payton’s programmer, works to create student course schedules for next school year. (Photo by Will Foster)


By Will Foster ’20

Each spring, Payton students submit their course requests for the following school year. On a website called Sound Programming, they rank their choices and select alternates as required. Yet this is only the beginning of an arduous process that will last all summer: Creating daily schedules for Payton’s more than 1,100 students. In charge of this task is AP Photography teacher Dr. Phyllis Burstein. Hers is an undertaking both elegant and impossibly complex.

“It’s like a big huge puzzle,” Burstein said on a recent afternoon in her first-floor office. “It’s challenging, but fun at the same time.”

She starts putting together the puzzle in late spring. Once course requests are received, a decision is made as to how many sections of each course will be offered to accommodate student demand. “Our philosophy is that we should work for the students,” Burstein said. “So that’s why we’re so strict about course requests, that you do it and that you don’t change it. Because then we take all those numbers and we actually create a master schedule around the students.”

While creating this master schedule, Burstein also tries to fulfill teachers’ wishes as much as she can. “The teachers ask for certain things they want,” she said, such as to have all periods of one class on the same day. Matters are complicated, however, by the fact that some teachers share classrooms. That means certain teachers cannot teach concurrently, which narrows Burstein’s options to some degree.

Once the master schedule is complete, that outline is filled in as students are slotted into periods. Using the Aspen computer program, Burstein inputs students’ class preferences and then runs a semi-randomized program to create a very rough first draft of the schedule. “It will tell me something like, ‘70% of the students got everything they wanted,’” Burstein said. “So that’s when I go look for things, and move classes around.” Then she runs the program another time: “And we’ll see like 75%, and I’ll do it again…”

“And then at some point I hit a wall, like, I’ll be 75 [%], 77, 80 … and then it will be like 73,” Burstein said, “and I’ll be like ‘Oh, I have to go back.’ So then I have to stop.” This is when the hardest part begins: Meticulously combing through the schedules of the students who did not get their first choice courses. “I go in, one at a time, and try to move things around, to try to get everybody what they want,” she said.

Course programming lasts throughout the summer. “I’ll work on it almost every day,” Burstein said. In some years she is still working on Labor Day. “I’m not usually finished until August,” she said. “There’ve been times where, literally, the day before school starts I’ve been here printing out the schedules.”

Final schedules distributed to students are indeed final, with essentially no exceptions; the schedules are far too intricate and interdependent to accommodate last-minute changes. “So you can see why we make such a big deal about … you being sure [in the spring] about the courses you want,” Burstein said.

The offices of Payton’s guidance counselors are always busy when course selection time comes around each spring. Students frequently stop by with questions about choosing alternates and ranking classes. The counselors also must individually approve every student’s course requests, and may recommend changes if they find a student’s list wanting.

For example, “If you list an AP your alternate should also be AP,” said counselor Ashley Greer, currently in her fifth year at Payton. “What we don’t want to see are students listing an AP as an alternate to an honors course … And if I notice that I’ll just circle it and call the student in so we can talk about a better course selection.”

Another mistake students make is choosing a schedule that is too rigorous. “I would say it’s tempting for many [upperclassmen] to take too many AP courses,” Greer said. “You guys log in to Sound Programming. And you know, you look and you see, ‘oh man, I’ve been approved for pretty much every AP’ … The students I think are tempted to take the most challenging courses.”

Greer noted that some students, particularly those who want to take what she called “the trifecta of AP science courses” (AP Chemistry, Biology, and Physics), can have a difficult time creating their schedules (those three courses all meet during two blocks rather than the ordinary one block). “Sometimes students literally run out of space in their schedules,” Greer said, “which is why mapping out a four-year plan, even on your own time with an Excel spreadsheet, or coming in to meet with your counselor, is really helpful. Because then we can see like, can you fit in all the double science periods and get your graduation requirements out of the way? It’s kind of stressful at times, which we understand.”

Despite Burstein’s best efforts, not every student gets all of their first choice courses. “There are some courses where there’s not enough space,” she said. “For example, if there’s only one teacher that can teach it. But for the most part when you don’t get a class, it’s because we can’t fit it into your schedule.” For example, if a student signs up for two courses that end up being offered during the same period (and only during that period), the student will only be able to get one of those courses, even if both have spaces available.

That said, Burstein noted her computer software can help ameliorate conflicts in students’ schedules. “I have this thing, it’s called a matrix, where I can figure out how many kids signed up for Course A and how many kids signed up for Course B, and then how many kids cross over,” she said. “And then I can purposely try not to schedule them at the same time.”

Burstein was one of Payton’s founding faculty members, initially joining the brand-new school in 2000 as the Visual and Performing Arts Department Chair. She taught art at first and later photography, the latter of which she continues to teach today. She was hired to do the course programming when current Principal Timothy Devine began his tenure in 2011, and she has done that job ever since.

For many students, the most frustrating aspect of selecting courses is choosing alternates. “I don’t like how there’s a requirement to have all the backups,” said Liam Mulcahy ‘20. “There’s a lot of ambiguity on what classes I’m going to end up getting.” Still, Mulcahy said he had mostly gotten his first-choice classes in prior years.

Burstein said selecting alternates is necessary to make sure students get moved to a class they are okay with if their first choice doesn’t work out. “I want to know, which class is the most important one to you? And which one do you feel like ‘I could take either’?” Burstein said. “If you put a class seventh, and you put an alternate to that, then if I need to I’ll try [changing] that one first, because you said that was the least important.”

If Burstein is unable to give a student either their first choice or their alternate, she contacts the student to ask them what available course they would prefer. “I’m not going to just throw you … in [any] period that is open,” she said. “There might be five things that I could put you in, but I’m not going to pick it. I let you pick it.”

Underclassmen only have to pick alternates for two classes, while upperclassmen must select four alternates. Burstein said this is because freshmen and sophomores have much less flexibility in selecting courses — for example, freshmen ordinarily are required to take PE I and English I, while sophomores generally must take PE II and English II.

Burstein tries to take account of seniors’ preferences before moving on to juniors, sophomores, and freshmen. “I spend a lot of time on the senior schedule,” she said. “I figure it’s your last year, and if you didn’t get the classes you wanted earlier, I want to make sure you get them before you leave … So when I make the master schedule and put in the seniors, if I’m finding a lot of [seniors] aren’t getting what they want, I go back to the master and I move things around.” Still, Burstein noted, there is no absolute “senior preference,” and it may turn out that some juniors get their first choices while some seniors do not.

Burstein implores students to rank courses based purely on their honest preferences. “Sometimes people ask me, is there a ‘strategy’?” she said. “Honestly, my answer always is there’s no strategy. Because [with your ranking] what you’ve done is told me what’s most important to you. And I just believe you, right? … And so if you use [some] kind of strategy like, ‘oh, there’s multiple sections, so it doesn’t really matter [what I put as the alternate],’ I’m not thinking that. I’m thinking you really meant that, you really didn’t care if you got [the alternate].”

“I feel like it’s an agreement we’ve made,” Burstein said. “I’m going to try to get you the best schedule. And you try to give me the best information that you can.”

Regarding his own strategy when ranking courses, Mulcahy said, “I put whatever is my most popular or fun class at the top. Because you’ve got to have at least one fun class. And then I put like two of the AP classes that I want to make sure I get.”

Andrea Sorto ‘20 also said she tries to be a bit strategic in her selections. “I feel like I’ve developed a hack for it,” she said. “So, like, if I know I have to take a course [as a graduation requirement], of course I just put it at the bottom.” She tries to put popular courses higher on her list. “So, for example, broadcast,” Sorto said. She added that she has mostly gotten her first-choice classes in her three years thus far at Payton.

Ultimately, Burstein feels her painstaking work in creating the schedules is worth the effort. “You only go to high school once,” she said. “I think it’s worth it for me to spend a little bit of my time for you to have a whole year of the classes you want.”

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