Four-Day Week Finds a Niche in the Rural West
School officials in Pritchett, Colo., recommend an interesting cure for the Monday blues: Wait till Tuesday.
Mondays may be for trips to the orthodontist, buying jeans at the mall, putting the finishing touches on the science-fair project, or moving cattle. But in Pritchett, Mondays are not for school.
The remote, 85-student district in southeastern Colorado is one of about 100 districts around the country where school is a four-day-a-week affair. By adding Monday or Friday to the weekend, the districts say they save money, help students and teachers focus more on classwork, and win over parents.
Although most of the districts that have condensed their weekly calendars find it hard to imagine going back to the Monday-through-Friday routine, they are not trying to sell the idea as a flashy new trend.
"This wouldn't go over in bedroom communities or cities," said Garry Coulter, the Pritchett superintendent. "This won't happen where schools are an important babysitter for parents."
But in rural communities where out-of-school children are more likely to become helping hands than day-care clients, the four-day schedule has found a niche. About 38 districts in Colorado use it. So do 16 of 89 New Mexico districts, 11 of 40 Utah districts, and scattered schools in other Western states.
"I can't imagine going back" to the old schedule, said Reva Phillips, the Pritchett town clerk, whose two daughters are thriving on the four-day week. "It's really amazing how much better it is when you don't have that 'Oh God, it's Monday' thing."
Reducing Wear and Tear
Rural districts began turning to the four-day schedule in the 1980's as a way to reduce soaring energy costs. The move instantly reduced fuel and heating bills by as much as 20 percent, while prolonging the life of bus fleets.
More recently, schools have opted to stick with the modified calendar or switch to it to deal with a host of problems that come with a sparse population. For one thing, the extra day off helps stem student and teacher absenteeism.
In many remote areas, a visit to the doctor can easily become a 100-mile trek, and almost always consumes a day of school. Athletic and other interscholastic events also involve long road trips that require absences.
Joseph T. Newlin, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association in Fort Collins, Colo., said the four-day week gives many districts a chance to separate academics and extracurricular activities. That separation can eliminate many of the frequent interruptions that educators often cite as problems in keeping students on track.
For many districts, the financial advantages of the short week remain, with few academic drawbacks. In the years that districts have been operating without Mondays or Fridays, studies have found that the longer days and shorter weeks tend to have no significant effects--either positive or negative--on achievement.
And the most persuasive testament to the schedule's appeal has been the reaction of local schools. "Most of the districts that have gone on it have stayed on it," Mr. Newlin said.
Utah Cracks Down
A survey of the Sheridan County School District 1 in Big Horn, Wyo., recently reported high community satisfaction with the four-day schedule adopted in 1985.
Students in the 900-student district take Fridays off. The day is used as training and planning time for teachers, and as a travel day for teams, clubs, and classes on field trips.
The schedule provides 16 days of in-service time for teachers.
Four of the 25 schools in the sprawling 16,500-student Washington County district in Utah have opted for the four-day week.
The 350 high school students in rural Enterprise begin school at 8 A.M. and finish about 3:45 P.M. Fridays at both the high school and the elementary school are devoted to extracurricular activities.
"Kids are not always jumping around and talking about going someplace," said Superintendent Steven H. Peterson.
The short week in Utah, however, is about to come to an abrupt halt.
The state school board--following up on a resolution passed by the legislature--voted 13 to 2 this month to replace the state's requirement of a 990-hour school year with one that mandates 180 instructional days. State officials became alarmed that some schools had whittled the year down to 142 instructional days and were experimenting with moving to a three-day week.
Scott W. Bean, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the short week was moving schools in the wrong direction.
Lawmakers set the 990-hour requirement, he explained, in hopes of allowing districts to extend the school year, not compress it.
Critics of the four-day calendar argue that the extended days become an endurance contest for young students. They also cite studies that urge schools to extend the school year in an effort to lessen students' learning losses over the summer break.
'Good for Everybody'
Opponents persuaded the school board in the Burke Central district in Lignite, N.D., against the switch late last month.
"In the end, the people didn't feel like the advantages outweighed the disadvantages," said Charles Dvorak, the superintendent of the 168-student district.
Facing $300,000 in cuts, the Custer, S.D., school board voted recently to experiment with the short week for the coming year as a way to save $83,000.
In Colorado, Ms. Phillips said she sees nothing but good in the way her children's time is now divided.
"We're farmers and ranchers, so everything we do is family oriented, but this is good for everybody," she said. "My husband has moved cattle-branding to Monday so our daughter can help. The girls use that day to get caught up on all their reading and homework. And without having to deal with Monday, the kids seem more fresh."