Published Online: September 17, 2013
Published in Print: September 18, 2013, as Iowa District Reimagines the Five-Day School Week

Iowa District Puts Twist on Four-Day Week

As more districts adopt four-day weeks to cope with budget crunches, one rural Iowa district says it is embracing the practice for a different reason: to squeeze more time out of the school calendar for student enrichment and teachers’ professional development.

Starting this school year, students in the 550-student WACO community school district will attend school Monday through Thursday, spending an hour longer in class each day so that no classes will need to be held on Fridays. Students in the district—which serves the communities of Wayland, Crawfordsville, and Olds—have the option of attending remedial or enrichment classes every other Friday or to enroll in college-level classes.

This new plan for the school year follows the June 2013 passage of Iowa’s House File 215, which officially defines the state’s school year length requirements in both days and hours. Under the new law, a full school year is defined as having at least 1,080 hours, or an equivalent 180 days, of instruction, but it’s up to districts to inform the state of which metric they will use to measure their school year—in hours or days.

Iowa isn’t alone in this shift. More states nationwide are altering their definitions of the school year from days to hours to allow more scheduling flexibility, according to Kathy Christie, the chief of staff at the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver. More than 20 states have districts operating on four-day weeks, according to the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University Bloomington.

Cost-Cutting Measure?

According to Ms. Christie, districts—especially those in rural areas—are typically lured to the four-day week as a possible form of relief from budget woes. They see the condensed schedule as a way to reduce costs associated with busing and utilities.

In rural southern Idaho, for example, officials of the Wendell school district say budget concerns are driving their district’s move to a four-day week this academic year. The 1,200-student district hopes that the new schedule will cut down on transportation and utility costs and on student absences, since schools receive much of their funding based on how many students attend.

Superintendent Gregory Lowe said: “With the cuts we had here in Idaho, we thought this would lead to savings for our struggling budget, but we also felt like it was a good thing for students.”

However, like Iowa’s WACO district, Wendell isn’t planning on letting its Fridays go to waste. It will use those days for teacher professional development, to provide extra help for students through a program called the Success Alliance, or for enrichment activities, depending on the week.

The Fridays set aside for professional development will be focused on instructional strategies for the Common Core State Standards.

Results in Practice

Meanwhile, another rural district, the MACCRAY school system, which serves Maynard, Clara City, and Raymond in Minnesota, is entering its fifth school year with a four-day week. For the most part, community feedback on the switch has been positive, according to the 650-student district.

“Parents really like it,” said Gary Simms, the principal of MACCRAY Senior High School, “and because we have one less day, we save on busing, on utilities, on maintenance time. We save a bit on food service.”

The district decided to cut Monday out of its school week to reduce absenteeism as well, since parents can now schedule doctor or other appointments for their children on that day, and now absenteeism rates are “maybe a little better than before,” according to Mr. Simms.

While child care is one concern often brought up with four-day-week districts, Mr. Simms said the MACCRAY district hasn’t heard many complaints.

“If parents know when they will need a babysitter, 99 percent are responsible enough to get one,” he said.

Even though belt-tightening is driving many of the switches to four-day schedules, Ms. Christie of the ECS said that “cost-saving is not a reason to make the switch.”

That’s because calculations of the savings produced by the schedule change have shown them to be minimal, she said.

Shortening the Schedule: Pros and Cons

Reducing the school week from five days to four doesn’t automatically translate to big savings, according to analysts.

Potential Benefits

  • Increased attendance rates for teachers and students
  • Boosts morale among teachers and students
  • Additional time available for professional development and teacher planning
  • Savings on transportation and heating and cooling costs
  • Decreased need for substitute teachers; savings in substitute- teacher wages
  • More efficient use of classroom time
  • Fewer discipline problems

Potential Drawbacks

  • Difficulty finding child care on fifth day
  • Actual savings often less than anticipated savings
  • May have negative effects on at-risk students and those with special needs
  • May be difficult for younger students
  • Decreased wages for cafeteria workers and bus drivers, who lose one day of work per week

Unknowns

  • Effectiveness and appropriateness in large/urban school districts
  • Impact on student achievement

Moreover, the educational value of the time added on to each day, to account for the lost day of instruction, hasn’t been examined in depth. “Most of the research is anecdotal,” Ms. Christie said.

A report from Indiana University’s CEEP says that there is no strong evidence that a four-day week has either a positive or negative effect on achievement.

In Iowa, the state education department appears to concur with Ms. Christie’s assessment of the fiscal benefits of such a change.

“The state has taken the stand that if a district is doing this just to save money, that’s not something they’re OK with. Historically, they haven’t approved those calendars,” said WACO Superintendent Darrell Smith. “And I’m OK with that. Education shouldn’t be about money.”

Looking to Improve

Though WACO wasn’t the first district in Iowa to make the request to the state for such a schedule change, it was the first to gain approval, largely because the district’s motivation has not been budget-based.

“In fact, it could end up costing us money,” said Mr. Smith.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that districts make “adequate yearly progress” on state academic tests. But, Mr. Smith said, “when we looked at our data, it was flat.”

So the district decided a four-day week might offer an opportunity to improve learning through additional assistance and educational enrichment opportunities for students and professional development for teachers.

For 13 Fridays throughout the school year, beginning this week, students in all grades will have the opportunity to attend a half-day, when all teachers will be on hand for office hours, during which students can get remedial tutoring or opportunities for credit recovery.

For students seeking an additional challenge, the district’s schools will also offer enrichment classes, such as music, engineering, or exploration science classes, on those Fridays or will allow for concurrent enrollment through the local community college, giving students the opportunity to acquire college credits.

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All other Fridays will be used for professional development, allowing teachers time to meet with fellow department members and collaboratively plan their lessons, or learn how to bring technology into their classrooms.

“What we’re looking at is the opportunity to change the way our teachers teach,” said Mr. Smith. “We’re really interested in using technology as an instructional tool, and in putting it in the hands of kids. But we have to get our teachers ready first.”

As of last week, 95 percent of WACO's students had expressed interest in coming into school for the Friday programs.

Mr. Smith said the district may use the time to bone up on computerized textbooks to develop more flexible curricula and digital assessments that will give teachers better feedback on what their students are learning and what knowledge they’re still lacking.

“We don’t want to waste time teaching students what they already know. We want to teach what they don’t know,” he said.

The WACO district plans to follow the schedule for at least three years to fully weigh its effectiveness based on student results from state and district assessments and teacher feedback.

“[This plan] puts everybody on the same wavelength,” Mr. Smith said. “It takes everybody working toward the same thing to make something work.”

Vol. 33, Issue 04, Page 10

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