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No More Monday Morning Blues

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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, educators in these districts say they save money and help students and teachers focus more on classwork.
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 selling the idea as a flashy new trend. "This wouldn't go over in bedroom communities or cities,'' acknowledges 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 districts in New Mexico, 11 of 40 in Utah, and a smattering of others in different Western states.

"I can't imagine going back'' to the old schedule, says Pritchett town clerk Reva Phillips, 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.''

Rural districts began turning to the four-day schedule in the 1980s 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 because it seems to help people deal with a host of logistical problems that arise in remote areas. A trip to the doctor, for example, can easily be a 100-mile trek and consume a day of school. The extra day off stems student and teacher absences for those kinds of purposes.

And the advantages of the short week apparently do not come at the expense of academics. Studies have found that longer days and shorter weeks have no significant effects--positive or negative--on student achievement. Perhaps 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,'' says Joseph Newlin, executive director of the National Rural Education Association in Fort Collins, Colo.

Still, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of a four-day school week. In fact, policymakers in Utah have brought an abrupt halt to the practice. In May, the state school board--following up on a resolution passed by the legislature--voted 13-2 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 that a few were thinking about trying to squeeze the required number of hours into a three-day week.

Scott Bean, the state superintendent, believes the short week was moving schools in the wrong direction. Lawmakers set the 990-hour requirement, he explains, in hopes of allowing districts to extend the school year, not compress it.

While critics of the four-day calendar argue that the longer school days can be an endurance contest for younger students, supporters see nothing but good in the way their children's time is now divided. "This is good for everybody,'' says Reva Phillips of Pritchett. "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.''

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