Published Online: April 13, 2010

Ill. Lawmakers May Let Schools Adopt 4-Day Week

The rural Jamaica School District in eastern Illinois spent $380,000 on transportation two years ago — 9 percent of its budget and more than twice the percentage the average Illinois district spent.

That got Superintendent Mark Janesky thinking: What if its buses were parked one day? What if kids were in school just four days? Jamaica, headquartered in Sidell, about 25 miles southeast of Champaign, would save $100,000 a year, he estimated.

The House has approved legislation allowing schools to drop one day of classes after Janesky convinced Rep. Bill Black that administrators should have that option. Black, a Danville Republican, sponsored the measure that now awaits Senate action.

Students wouldn't miss any time in school because the four in-session days would be longer. But with Friday or Monday off, transportation costs would drop, along with some utility bills and costs for hourly workers, such as cafeteria cooks and custodians.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly supported Black's bill once they understood the change would be voluntary. But it wasn't unanimous.

"Parents simply are not ready for this," said Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Maywood, who voted against it. "I want to expand school. This is going the wrong direction."

The idea is not new. About 100 districts in 17 states have four-day weeks, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research and policy clearinghouse.

But it has its detractors, including Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, who said parents would struggle to find extra child care. Others say students, particularly little ones, can't concentrate for longer periods. And sometimes it doesn't save the money expected.

"People get really excited about it and think they're going to cut their costs by 20 percent because they're dropping one day, but it doesn't work that way," said Mike Griffith, an Education Commission of the States senior policy adviser. "You're still going to have to heat the building. You're still going to have to purchase the textbooks and the computers."

But it's a lot easier politically to cut back the schedule than fire teachers, Griffith said. Illinois has a $13 billion deficit and is $1.3 billion behind in reimbursing local schools for services such as transportation, according to the comptroller's office.

The abbreviated schedule works best in small, rural districts spread across large areas. Jamaica has fewer than 500 students in 110 square miles.

In the 900-student school district in Custer, S.D., a 1,200-square-mile chunk of the Black Hills, "the four-day week's become a way of life" since it began in 1995, Superintendent Tim Creal said.

But in Gore, Okla., the superintendent who came in to fix the financially troubled school district two months ago immediately announced the one-year flirtation with four days would end, calming the rumblings of dissatisfied families. It works in some districts, Superintendent Monte Thompson said, but it's not the solution in Gore.

"You set me down in class for 45 minutes, you've got my attention for 35 minutes at most, and that's a good student," Thompson said. "Now you expect me to sit in that class a full hour, you've added 15 more minutes."

Schools also face concerns about child care. But Black points out parents have to find someone to watch their children during the summer, winter and spring breaks and holidays. And, with Monday holidays, staff training days and other events, only about two-thirds of the weeks in typical districts are actually five days long, Creal said.

Gore estimated the district saved $37,000 by shortening its week and adding 90 minutes to each school day. But, he said, it could have saved as much by not hiring two of the nine teaches his predecessor brought on for this school year.

The discount has been bigger in South Dakota where Custer added 40 minutes a day and has saved $50,000 to $70,000 per year — the cost of up to two teachers.

"It doesn't sound like much, but we have 80 certified staff, so when you think about pulling one or two out, that means everybody has to have larger class sizes,"

Jamaica's struggling with just that issue. It's announced layoffs of nearly a dozen teachers and aides for next school year and cut assistant athletic and scholastic bowl coaches, cross-country, wrestling and middle-school basketball.

"I'm not even sure my district would do this," Janesky said of the four-day schedule. "But every district in the state deserves the ability to do this, especially in a time period when we're all going to be in deep financial trouble soon."

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