What A Difference A Day Makes
By dropping one day of school each week and lengthening the remaining four, school officials figure, the district surrounding Little Rock could save as much as 25 percent in transportation and utility costs, savings that could see the district through these hard times.
Pulaski County is one of a small but growing number of school systems that have adopted, or are considering, fewer but longer school days as a way of coping with the fiscal woes created by the recession. Some districts started experimenting with the alternative schedule when oil prices soared more than a decade ago.
At the state level, the clearest sign of increased interest in four-day weeks is in Montana, where the Senate has voted to let districts operate on such a schedule.
But 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 in the West, where children can spend upward of three hours a day on a bus. Districts in Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming have operated on a four-day cycle, but Colorado 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's education department.
To meet the state's mandate of 1,080 hours annually, the districts typically lengthened their school days by an hour and a half. Those that piloted the program saved about 20 percent of their transportation costs by cutting out one day's round trip. They also realized savings on food, heating, electrical costs, and supportstaff salaries.
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 five-and-a-half-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.
"We felt we could consolidate instructional time in four days with all other activities, especially sports, being on Fridays,'' says Lynn Hammersley, director of special programs.
The largest four-day district in Colorado is East Grand, where Superintendent Gary Sibigtroth estimates his system saves $200,000 annually by operating on the shortened week. The district, in ski country some 90 miles west of Denver, adopted the schedule in 1981 after voters defeated a tax-increase referendum.
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. Overall, Sibigtroth says, uninterrupted 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.
Fran Cook, a 2nd grade teacher at Fraser Elementary in the district, says the four-day week promotes "better attendance, health, and learning'' among her students. "We have analyzed this, and it just plain works,'' she explains. The schedule also gives her the time and energy to attend professional workshops on the weekends. "During the five-day week, I was too dead,'' she says. "No way was I going to give up half of my weekend.''
Family life has also been affected by the altered school week. "Parents have adjusted their own work schedules so more of them are home on Monday when their children are home,'' Sibigtroth says. "When you start talking about changing that, people get upset because it upsets their lifestyle and 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 next 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.
Supporters of the four-day week offer primarily anecdotal evidence of student gains. But, according to Scamman of the Colorado education department, the few relevant studies on student achievement have shown no definitive difference between a fourand five-day week.
Test scores have risen about 10 percent in East Grand, Sibigtroth says, although he acknowledges there is no research to support a relationship between a four-day week and performance. "It definitely did not hurt the achievement level,'' he says.
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, notes 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 among educators has been the impact of the longer day on children in the early grades. To compensate for their shorter attention spans, the schools typically teach the core subjects in the morning, saving the lighter subjects like art 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,'' says Charlene Bertolino, a teacher in Walsenburg. "When they get used to it, there's no turning back.''
Before Pulaski County can proceed to a four-day week, district officials must persuade the Arkansas 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,'' says Bobby 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.''-
Karen Diegmueller, Education Week