When the leaders of a rural school district in South Dakota decided to adopt a four-day school week this fall, they had a familiar example to follow. The district 30 miles down the road from Hot Springs had done it already.
Rural districts in many places—but especially in sparsely populated areas west of the Mississippi—have made four-day weeks a way of life. Many switched their schedules as a way to save money, trying to keep rural schools open while enrollments drop and job opportunities lag in some places.
Concerned in part about lost instructional time, some districts, though, are re-thinking the four-day schedules.
Most of the more than 100 districts that have made the switch nationwide are off on Fridays, and hold classes nearly an hour longer on other days.
“Our main focus originally was budget cutting,” said Vern G. Hagedorn, the superintendent of the 900-student Hot Springs, S.D., schools, who is trying to keep his district afloat following slipping enrollment and state budget cuts.
But the discussion in Mr. Hagedorn’s district, 60 miles south of Mount Rushmore, quickly turned to the possible educational benefits of the four-day week. People started to like the idea of more time each day for teaching, and an extra day off every week.
The neighboring Custer, S.D., schools adopted a four-day schedule in 1995, and successfully battled state officials to change state laws that governed educational content by the hour, not the day.
That opened the door for Hot Springs to jump on the bandwagon. In states such as Colorado, Wyoming, and Louisiana, limited but significant numbers of schools are doing the same. In Colorado, 47 of the state’s 178 school districts now follow four-day schedules, said Gary H. Sibigtroth, an assistant state commissioner of education.
Most of the districts that follow four-day schedules in Colorado are small: They equal about one-fourth of the state’s school districts, but only 1 percent of enrollment statewide. Many charter schools also have four-day schedules.
Mr. Sibigtroth said he’s sold on the idea of four-day weeks for some schools and districts. He was the superintendent of the 1,100-student East Grand schools, a district that began using four-day weeks after taxpayers rejected a levy for local schools.
The district originally adopted the schedule to save money. It kept the four-day week because people liked it, Mr. Sibigtroth said.
Four-day weeks have resulted in fewer teacher and student absences and allow a spare day for personal business, he said. And it allows an extra day of recreation, he added, noting that the community is situated near the Winter Park ski area.
A nontraditional schedule may be the right choice for some communities, and states should allow that flexibility, said Sylvia Parker, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based consultant for the Rural School and Community Trust, which has its headquarters in Washington.
She warned, though, that a four-day schedule could be more complicated than some educators might think. Urban and suburban schools might face severe child-care shortages if thousands of school-age students were suddenly out of class on Fridays, for instance, but the same dilemma could provide babysitting jobs for rural teenagers, she said.
“It’s about a community being able to make a decision for themselves and what works for them,” she added, “and not being forced to follow a particular schedule.”
Not every school district that has switched to a four-day week is happy with the change.
Donna S. McGee, the superintendent of the 193-student district in Lake Arthur, N.M., would like to wish it away. She plans to urge her school board to change to a five-day schedule next year.
Her district includes a middle school that is on state academic probation. She argues that students need an extra day of education—not a day off.
While some people in her community prefer the day off, Ms. McGee said, sports and other activities still get in the way during the other four days. And any money the district might save doesn’t matter to her until there is more convincing research that four-day weeks can improve student achievement. “It’s a savings—but maybe an educational opportunity missed,” she said.
In New Mexico, 18 of the 89 districts are on four-day schedules, said Michael Kaplan, the alternative education director for the New Mexico Department of Education. Three charter schools and one regular public elementary school also use the schedule, he said.
As elsewhere, most of that state’s districts using the four-day weeks are small—almost all of them with fewer than 1,000 students each, Mr. Kaplan said.
In South Dakota, Mr. Hagedorn said his district had a difficult time switching schedules.
He supported a four-day week hoping it would save money on school bus runs, utilities, and salaries. The district took a $200,000 cut in state funding from its nearly $5 million budget last year. But he said the savings have been less than expected because the school board backed off from cutting employees’ hours and pay.
Still, the move to a four-day workweek required negotiations with the local teachers’ union. “There were some large issues,” Mr. Hagedorn said.
But the more Hot Springs’ school leaders talked about their choices, the more everyone began to discuss how the change might help students learn.
Science teachers backed the plan, saying they’d have time to complete lab session in one day. Elementary school teachers could make space for group planning sessions under a new schedule. The experience of the neighboring Custer district showed that Fridays could be used for staff training, and that student-attendance rates might rise.
The plan was approved, but it’s too early to gauge the success and savings from the four-day week, Mr. Hagedorn said. The new schedule began when schools opened in August, and the district plans to evaluate the program next summer.
Until then, students in Hot Springs can attend voluntary activities all day on Fridays and after school during the four-day week, thanks to a state grant that has helped the district establish the program.
Mr. Hagedorn said the new schedule actually adds 23 hours of instruction while starting and ending the school year on the same days. “It’s new, and it’s something everybody wanted,” he said.