Recession Prompting Districts To Consider 4-Day School Weeks
School officials in Pulaski County, Ark., are hoping that a new formula will help them solve the serious budget problems facing their district: Five minus one equals 25 percent.
After piling up legal fees stemming from a long-running desegregation suit, surrendering a substantial portion of the district's tax base, and losing requested millage increases for 12 years running, district officials have proposed shifting to a four-day week as a relatively painless method of saving money.
By dropping one day of school each week while lengthening the days, school officials figure, the district surrounding Little Rock could save from 10 percent to 25 percent in transportation and utility costs.
Before the district can proceed, though, officials must persuade the legislature to waive the state's 187-day requirement at a time when many policymakers are calling for an extended school calendar.
"We're just sort of on hold," said Bobby G. Lester, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District. "Until we get a law, we're going to sit here waiting to do something we want to do."
Mr. Lester's district is one of a small but growing number of school systems, particularly in the Rocky Mountain West, that have adopted or are considering having fewer but longer school days as a way of coping with the fiscal woes created by the current economic recession.
At the state level, the clearest sign of increased interest in four-day weeks is in Montana, where the Senate has approved a bill giving local districts the flexibility to operate on such a schedule.
While holding out some educational benefits from the shift, most advocates of four-day weeks say it all comes down to money.
"Our reasoning was primarily financial. We were looking at a budget shortfall," said Richard S. Clockedile, superintendent of School Administrative District Number 3 in Maine. "We didn't try to pretend it was going to improve education."
The district's request to go to a four-day schedule was turned down this school year by the state education commissioner.
"There are probably districts here and there testing it for cost purposes," said Mary Fulton, a policy associate at the Education Commission of the States. But "it's not usually one of the top options schools will go to."
Spurred by Oil Prices
With some 22,000 students, Pulaski County would be by far the largest district to try a four-day week.
Most of those that already have done so are in rural areas out West, where children can spend upward of three hours a day on a bus. The districts started experimenting with an alternative schedule when the Persian Gulf crisis sent fuel costs higher.
Districts in Utah, Wyoming, and Oregon have operated on a four-day cycle. Colorado, though, has the most extensive track record.
Thirty-six of the state's 176 districts have been granted waivers for an experimental calendar in the past dozen years, according to Jim Scamman, a field representative for the state education department. They are responsible for educating about 10,000 of the state's 550,000 elementary and secondary students.
To meet the state's mandate of 1,080 hours annually, the districts typically lengthened their school days by an hour and a half.
The districts that piloted the program saved about 20 percent of their transportation costs by cutting out one day's round trip, said Mr. Scamman. They also realized savings on food, heating and electrical costs, and support-staff salaries.
When their financial problems started to ease, according to Mr. Scamman, some districts started adding special programs and remedial activities to their Monday or Friday schedules.
"The initial cost-saving motive got watered down," he observed.
Although money generally has been the incentive to move to a four-day week, Sheridan County (Wyo.) School District Number 1 adopted the alternate schedule for instructional purposes. In an isolated, 780-pupil district located a 5-hour drive from Cheyenne, Fridays were often a lost day for large numbers of athletes, band members, and cheerleaders who traveled long distances to sporting events, officials discovered.
"We felt we could consolidate instructional time in four days with all other activities, especially sports, being on Fridays," said Lynn Hammersley, director of special programs.
The largest four-day district in Colorado is East Grand, where Superintendent Gary H. Sibigtroth estimates his district saves $200,000 annually by operating on a four-day week.
The district, in ski country some 90 miles west of Denver, adopted the schedule in 1981 after voters defeated a tax-increase referendum.
In addition to saving money on fuel and utilities, the district of 1,057 students pared the expenses of bus drivers, cooks, and other hourly workers.
Students go to school 144 days a year, in contrast to the 160-day minimum Colorado requires of most districts. Classes begin at 7:50 A.M. and conclude at 4:10 P.M.
Over all, Mr. Sibigtroth said, uninterrupted contract time between student and teacher in the elementary schools has actually increased by 190 minutes a week.
Teachers use their extra day for planning and professional development, and teachers and students alike schedule their doctor and dentist appointments on their off-days, thus keeping class-time disruptions to a minimum.
Moreover, the Winter Park and Silver Creek ski areas provide free skiing and instruction for students during their "Monday Madness" program. The district also is considering a tutoring program for the off day.
"Parents have adjusted their own work schedules so more of them are home on Monday when their children are home," Mr. Sibigtroth said. "When you start talking about changing that, people get upset because it upsets their lifestyle and own work schedule."
That is precisely what has happened in Walsenburg, Colo., where the school board has voted to go back to a five-day week in the upcoming academic year.
In response, a group of parents and teachers has formed a committee to persuade the school board to change its mind or, failing that, to slate candidates in the next election.
"We've worked our hours of business around the school so we would be there with them," said Ernest Reynolds, a member of the committee and the father of two students. His wife stays home with the children on Fridays, when they do their homework and chores around their ranch.
Mr. Reynolds estimates that it will cost the district $113,000 more to return to a five-day week--an expense, he says, that will be difficult to meet. More than the money, he said, all indicators point to improved student performance.
Supporters of the four-day week offer primarily anecdotal evidence of student gains. According to Mr. Scamman of the Colorado education department, the few relevant studies on student achievement have shown no definitive difference between a four- and five-day week.
Test scores have risen about 10 percent in East Grand, said Mr. Sibigtroth, although he acknowledged there is no research to support a causal relationship between a four-day week and performance.
"It definitely did not hurt the achievement level," he argued.
Test scores have declined, however, in the Grand, Utah, schools since the district went to a four-day week three years ago.
The decline could be attributed to a number of other factors, such as the changing composition of the student body, noted Don Weeks, the district's business administrator. Even so, the district is conducting a study of the effects of the four-day week, and plans to decide this spring whether to go back to the traditional school week.
The biggest single concern, say educators, has been the impact of the longer day on children in the early elementary grades. To compensate for their shorter attention spans, the schools typically teach the core subjects in the morning, saving the lighter subjects like art and music for the afternoons.
"It's hard for the first year, because naturally it's the first year they're in school for a full day," said Charlene Bertolino, a teacher at Washington School in Walsenburg, Colo. "When they get used to it, there's no turning back."
Vol. 10, Issue 24, Page 1, 21