Some school districts looking to save time and money have switched to four-day school weeks, either leaving the fifth day free or available for tutoring and parent conferences. Although some superintendents favor the concentrated class time, some say the wear and tear from a longer day has not been worth it for staff or students. Included: Tips for weighing the switch to a four-day week.
At a time when many school administrators are looking to stretch dollars and teaching time, some rural school districts are compressing the school week into four longer class days.
At least one superintendent told Education World that the schedule not only saved money but boosted staff and student morale as well.
Not all school districts, though, find that a shorter class week meets their needs. Some superintendents who have used the schedule said they have not realized the hoped-for benefits, such as additional productive class time, increased test scores, and marked financial savings.
Several said both teachers and students were "burned out" at the end of a longer school day, so not much learning time was gained.
Still, others are eager to try it.
A number of rural school districts adopted the four-day week as a fuel conservation measure during the energy crisis of the mid to late 1970s. When the fuel crunch was over, many schools remained on the four-day schedule.
The American Association of School Administrators estimated in 1999 that about 120 school systems in the U.S. had four-day weeks. Many of them are small districts in rural areas.
Colorado is one of the states where districts stayed with the four-day week over the years.
"It originally was for energy conservation, and people liked it, so it just kept going," said Morris Danielson, regional manager for the Colorado Department of Education. Now 38 out of 178 districts, and ten individual schools, have four-day weeks.
Besides saving school districts money on transportation, fuel, and food services, the longer concentrated class time can result in higher test scores, according to some studies. The fact that teachers and students also have a free day during the week to run errands and schedule appointments can cut down on teacher and student absenteeism.
Many of those benefits materialized at Custer School District in Custer, South Dakota, a K-12 district with an enrollment of 1,000 students. The district has been on a four-day week, Monday through Thursday, since 1995.
"I think if I tried to change the system, I probably would have a mutiny," said superintendent Dr. Timothy Creal, who inherited rather than initiated the schedule when he came to Custer last year. "In my opinion, it is better for the kids. There is more face-to-face time with kids."
School hours are 7:50 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., except for kindergarteners, who attend four half days. Each day is 40 minutes longer than it was on a five-day schedule.
The adjustment was not as dramatic as one might think, according to Creal. "When I looked at the school calendar, I was amazed at how many weeks are four days anyway. Only about half of the school year has five-day weeks."
The initial reason for compacting the school week was financial; Custer saves about $70,000 a year, mostly in transportation costs, with a four-day week, said Creal. Other benefits have been found as well.
"We tell people it was originally adopted for financial savings, but we're not staying with it for savings," he said. "We do it because it is best for kids."
Some students, for example, are spared a fifth day of an almost two-hour round trip commute.
"The kids say they like having the extra time to catch up on projects and assignments," according to Creal. Staff members are not required to come in on Fridays, but many do; if a professional development program is held Friday, then teachers are paid for an extra day. About 80 percent of students wind up in schools Fridays anyway, to participate in activities, he said.
"We try to schedule the bulk of activities on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays," Creal said. Participation in activities by middle and high school students has jumped since the schedule change, from 56 percent to 80 percent. "We're speculating that students feel they have more free time to participate."
On Mondays and Tuesdays, extracurricular activities must end by 8 p.m. and by 6 p.m. on Wednesdays, because many families attend church services. There are no time limits Fridays and Saturdays.
Students and teachers generally also follow the recommendation to schedule personal appointments on Fridays.
Neither student test scores nor attendance has risen dramatically, but attendance was high before the schedule change, Creal said. Students spend the same number of hours in class as those on a five-day schedule.
The tiny Edgemont School District in Edgemont, South Dakota (with a K-12 enrollment of 190 students), initiated a four-day schedule in 2002, aiming for results similar to Custer's.
Though the school district did have to make some budget cuts for the coming year, saving money was not the primary reason for changing the schedule, according to superintendent Alwyn Thoreson. The district is expecting to save about $10,000 this year in transportation costs.
"We looked at a number of things; cost was just one factor," said Thoreson. "We looked at the research, and three other schools in the area use it."
Among the benefits other districts have seen are decreases in dropout rates, discipline referrals, and class interruptions and improved morale, Thoreson told Education World.
Fifty minutes have been added to the school day. Students in grades one to 12 will be on a Monday to Thursday schedule similar to Custer's: 7:50 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. Kindergartners' will have the same hours, but they will attend school only three days a week.
To help reduce restlessness among young students, a 15-minute recess has been added for third through sixth graders. Recess had been eliminated for those grades a few years before.
The district plans to offer tutoring and extracurricular activities on Fridays, and administrators have applied for grants to pay some teachers to come in Fridays. "We will be holding classes four days but in school five days," Thoreson said. "We will do an evaluation at the end of the year and see if we stick with it."
One state where the number of districts with four-day weeks continues to grow is New Mexico. School districts began adopting four-day schedules in the 1970s as fuel costs rose, and currently 18 out of 89 of the state's school districts and two individual schools are on four-day weeks, according to Dr. Michael Kaplan, director of the alternative education unit in the New Mexico Department of Education. Almost all the districts have fewer than 1,000 students.
One of the first districts in New Mexico to switch over, the 558-student Cimarron Municipal School District, changed to four-day weeks in 1973, and the schedule remains "overwhelmingly" popular with parents, said James Gallegos, principal of the Cimarron elementary and middle schools. "I think parents just like having that extra day with the kids," he told Education World.
Part of the reason for the schedule's popularity is that New Mexico has numerous small districts and an abundance of rural areas, said Kaplan. The Cimarron school district, for example, includes three towns, and some students travel 35 miles each way to school. Although state law had restricted four-day schedules to districts with 1,000 or fewer students, last year the law was amended to permit all districts to do it.
Saving money no longer is the main reason in New Mexico for districts making the switch, according to Kaplan. "[A four-day week] allows schools to have more of an academic focus," he said. "Many schools schedule sports or in-service activities on the fifth day. That minimizes the disruption to other school days. There are things for teachers to do in school on the fifth day, such as hold parent meetings."
Though most teachers do not come to work on Mondays, Cimarron's day off, Gallegos said he often comes into school Mondays for a chance to catch up on paperwork uninterrupted.
The four-day schedule in many cases also seems to agree with teachers. "It's been a morale booster; they know they have a day to catch up on personal errands," noted Kaplan. Student attendance has increased in many of the schools and the number of discipline referrals has dropped slightly.
The majority of students and staff members in four-day-week schools in Colorado also like the schedule, Danielson said, adding that the 7.5-hour class days can be tiring for some. "If every week you have an extra day off, that's a bonus," he said. "But those other four days are brutal."
One anticipated benefit districts in New Mexico have not seen: marked improvement in academic achievement. "It's been negligible," added Kaplan.
New Mexico school districts have to re-apply every year for the four-day schedule and submit an evaluation that indicates continued community support. Administrators weighing whether to change their school schedule are advised to spend a year planning the change and discussing it with community members, according to Kaplan.
"If you have 51 percent of the public supporting you, we advise them not to do it. We want to see 75 percent to 80 percent in favor," he said.
Some districts, though, which have used a four-day calendar for years, now say the disadvantages are outweighing the benefits.
After six years on a Tuesday-through-Friday schedule, the Saratoga (Arkansas) School District returned to a five-day schedule in 2002, even though former superintendent Lewis Diggs talked enthusiastically about the schedule in a 1998 Education World article. (See Is the Four-Day Week Coming Your Way?)
Diggs also called the switch "a huge success" in a March 1999 article in The School Administrator, published by the American Association of School Administrators, citing among other pluses, a 50 percent decrease in teacher absences and a 20 percent drop in student absences after a year.
But current superintendent Kenneth Muldrew told Education World the four-day week took a toll on students.
"The children need more academic time; even though it's a longer school day, the kids get tired in the afternoon and are not as productive," said Muldrew. "We decided we could make better use of time over five days. In addition, most of the kids ride buses, so they were up early and out [of school] late."
On the four-day schedule, school hours were 7:55 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., with 65-minute class periods. "We originally went to four days for financial reasons; we saved between $30,000 and $40,000 per year in transportation, utility, and fuel costs, and substitute teacher fees," according to Muldrew. "Now things are better financially." Parents indicated they supported the return to the five-day week.
For many of the same reasons, Donna McGee, superintendent of the Lake Arthur School District in Lake Arthur, New Mexico, would like to end the four-day schedule after almost 20 years.
"This is probably the last year on four days, as we have it now," McGee told Education World in 2002. Hours in the K-12 district are 8:10 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. "I was concerned about it when I took the job here three years ago. Teachers at the end of the day do not want to stay for staff meetings. I see staff and students drained and I have to worry if it is the best thing for students."
Either the day off, which is Friday, has to be used for lesson planning, parent conferences, and tutoring, or the district needs to return to a five-day schedule, said McGee. Teachers currently are not required to come in Fridays, and are paid extra if they do. Staff members also are encouraged to schedule personal appointments on Fridays, but many still are taking time off during the week.
Other benefits also have not been realized. Student attendance has been unaffected, and students who participate in athletics lose class time, because other schools in the area have the traditional shorter day.
In addition, test scores are declining in the 206-student district. "Why give students three days off when they need more academic time?" McGee asked. "This is a small town, with nowhere for kids to go. On Fridays, they are back at the school playground anyway."
The 2002 school year was spent surveying parents and teachers about the schedule and talking with the board of education about the possibility of resuming a traditional schedule. "Going back to five days could mean additional costs of about $30,000, a year, at most," McGee said. "The savings are negligible and come at the expense of students."
Creal, the South Dakota superintendent, said each administrator has to decide what is best for his or her district and community. "It works well for Custer," Creal said about the four-day schedule. "Each system works well for different districts."
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2006 Education World
Originally published 09/03/2002