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A Matter of Time: Schools Try Four-Day Weeks

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The Saratoga, Ark., school district is betting that its students will learn better with a new four-day calendar than a traditional five-day week. And educators in Louisiana's Beauregard Parish swear that four is better than five for students there as well.

Four-day weeks became common in rural Western states as a way to trim utility costs and travel expenses during the 1970s. Today, the abbreviated week is showing up in the South as a way to improve academics. And while some education experts and parents are unconvinced, educators in these sites say that they are on to something that works.

"The main reason we're doing this is that we had done the same things over and over," said Lewis Diggs, the superintendent of the 270-student Saratoga school system. "And there's a saying around here: 'The definition of stupidity is doing the same things and expecting new results.'"

New Waters

The Arkansas legislature this past summer made the four-day school week an option for districts. It may be the only state with such a law.

Most states require school districts to seek approval for a four-day week from state education officials. Arkansas has no such requirement. ("Four-Day Week Finds a Niche in the Rural West," May 24, 1995.)

"That was no accident," said state Rep. Dennis R. Young, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "I meant for it to be a local decision."

Mr. Young said he wanted to let schools experiment with schedules. He added that districts could cut costs with four-day weeks, and families would have more time together.

So far, the tiny Saratoga district in southwest Arkansas, 20 miles east of Hope, is the only district in the state to sign up. But officials there say that they have no plans of turning back. Saratoga's school board adopted the four-day week last June, hoping to save $50,000 in transportation costs from this year's total district budget of $1.2 million.

The savings have been enough so far this year to pay for a new preschool program, Monday tutorials, and subsidized college courses for local high school students. Saratoga officials hope the programs will help raise local scores on statewide exams enough to move the district off of Arkansas' list of academically distressed systems.

District schools and offices, which are open Tuesday through Friday and closed Monday except for special programs, meet state attendance requirements by expanding the school day 90 minutes. While some parents had been concerned about lining up day care for their children on Mondays, those needs are being met by relatives. Some parents add, too, that with their children in school from 7:55 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., they can now pick them up as they leave work.

School officials familiar with the four-day week say that day-care needs would likely be more pressing for parents in bigger districts.

"I approve of the four-day week, and my son likes it," said Janice Green, whose 17-year-old son attends Saratoga High School. "He's not under pressure to do a lot of work real fast."

Superintendent Diggs noted that with a free day for personal errands, teacher absenteeism in Saratoga is down 50 percent from last year.

But not everyone in the state is as enthusiastic about the law.

Luke Gordy, the vice chairman of the Arkansas board of education, wants lawmakers to revisit the statute next year. He worries that Saratoga's school day is too long for some children. But he stopped short of advocating its repeal.

"I disagree with [the law] because the legislation addressed it strictly on financial considerations and not on academic achievement," he said. "But if Saratoga is a test case, I'd like to see what they accomplish."

Louisiana Pilot

Officials in the 6,600-student Beauregard Parish school system in rural southwest Louisiana, asked the state school board twice before securing approval for a four-day-week pilot project in one of its K-12 schools two years ago.

Two more parish schools were approved for the program this fall.

The district's sole goal, said Assistant Superintendent Joe W. Aguillard, was to improve academic performance. That happens, in part, by lengthening class periods.

And all the extracurricular activities that might have cut into class time are on a school's off-day, which is Friday. That means more instructional time and fewer distractions, such as sporting events.

Schools also use Friday for voluntary programs. Singer High School, for example, has "Fabulous Fridays" from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., during which students can work with tutors or practice for standardized tests.

And even though the idea was not introduced to save money, Mr. Aguillard said that the district cut $10,000 in substitute-teacher costs last year at Merryville High School. Merryville, which was the first school in the district on the program, saw teacher absences drop from 823 days in the 1995-96 school year to 599 days last year.

The communities with the four-day schedules had drummed up broad support before making the change, Mr. Aguillard pointed out. "I believe in it for those schools that want it to work," he said. "But it should not be used in schools and communities that aren't ready for it."

Research Is Inconclusive

Four-day programs have drawn so much interest that Saratoga district officials compiled a data package to answer queries, while the Beauregard schools have set aside time each week for visitors.

But longtime observers of the four-day week in the West warn not to expect too much from the revised calendar.

Joseph T. Newlin, the director of the office of rural education at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said that his university's studies in the 1980s of student achievement were inconclusive.

"We found that [achievement] didn't go up or down dramatically," Mr. Newlin said. "The only conclusion you could draw is that it didn't cause a downturn."

The Utah board of education, concerned that some students were not getting enough class time, ended its popular four-day option in 1994 after some districts began experimenting with three-day weeks.

But the board approved a pilot four-day program this year in five districts. The tightly regulated five-year experiment requires the districts to show improvements in student achievement.

One New Mexico school official said that the four-day week is so entrenched in 18 of the state's 89 districts that he predicted a community revolt if it were taken away.

"It's a rural state, and it's beneficial to have kids at home to help out," said Jack McCoy, the deputy division director of the learning-services division of the New Mexico Department of Education.

But Superintendent Michael Bay-Borelli of the 1,100-student Custer, S.D., school district, that state's only district on a four-day schedule, sounded a note of warning. He said the program, which was adopted as a state pilot in 1995 to help overcome a $175,000 local budget deficit, has been so controversial that he would be slow to recommend it.

"I'd rather champion innovation that has a significant chance of improving education," he said. "I find myself championing something that's neutral."

The furor died down recently, he said, after the state board extended the pilot project for three years. "The community has finally moved on."

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