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Five Minus One Equals More: Four-Day Week Catches On

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Faced with rising costs and shrinking budgets, a small but growing number of rural school systems are turning to a four-day school week to save energy and preserve programs that might otherwise be cut.

In New Hampshire, the state's first experiment with the alternative schedule began this week in Deerfield, where children attended school from Monday to Thursday. School officials hope that the one-year test of the new schedule will allow them to continue to pay for programs in art, music, and athletics without sacrificing academic quality.

The single-school Deerfield district joins a number of rural districts in Colorado and New Mexico already using a four-day school week.

The Deerfield plan has increased the length of the school day from six to seven and a half hours, allowing the town's only school to remain closed on Fridays and saving an estimated $15,000 in transportation and energy costs.

If New Hampshire's experience mirrors that of Colorado, Deerfield's 266-student school district may discover some educational and social benefits as well.

In a study of the first year of Colorado's four-day week pilot program, researchers in the Office of Rural Education at Colorado State University found that the 12 rural districts in the study "demonstrated the potential to save energy and transportation costs, and to reduce student and teacher absenteeism."

In their report, the study's authors, Robert W. Richburg and Robert W. Edelen, say that an overwhelming majority of the parents, teachers, and students studied favored the alternative schedule for professional, educational, and family reasons.

Benefits Tabulated

The report concluded that districts reduced gas consumption by an average of 22.5 percent; bus maintenance costs by an average of 18 percent; and electrical consumption by an average of 23 percent. After adjusting the figures for one of the warmest winters on record, the researchers say that the districts saved from 7 to 25 percent in heating fuel.

The school districts also reported that they used 24.5 fewer substitute teachers than they had on the average for each of the two preceding years.

Students' achievement--considered by the Colorado Department of Education to be a crucial measure of the program's success--also appeared comparable to their performance on a five-day schedule, although the researchers say the evidence is not yet conclusive.

For the four-day week to work, however, community support--from townspeople as well as parents, students, and school personnel--is especially important, according to state education officials in Colorado and in New Mexico, where six rural districts are operating on a four-day week for all or part of the school year.

And it was "tremendous" community support--from townspeople as well as parents, students, and school personnel--that helped to persuade the initially reluctant New Hampshire State Board of Education to approve the Deerfield plan.

Among the advantages of the four-day week cited by teachers in the Colorado study are increased daily instructional time, improved student attitudes, and a day available for professional activities.

Parents liked the change because it created time for medical and dental appointments and because their children spent more time at home. A majority of students--93.2 percent of whom said they preferred the four-day schedule--reported that they believed they were learning more in the 1980-81 school year than they did the year before and that they were absent less.

The rural character of the communities, where many families live and work on farms and must travel relatively long distances to schools and doctors, according to Mr. Edelen, may be responsible for the plan's success. "Very small communities are what we studied," he said, "where there is parental support for family life and education."

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