It may be the most counterintuitive idea in education: Improve schools by lengthening weekends. But that’s the plan at West Grand School District in Kremmling, Colorado, a one-stoplight town about 100 miles west of Denver. This year, the district’s 520 students will attend classes for eight hours Monday through Thursday and have the option to take Fridays off.
Shortened weeks aren’t new, of course. High fuel, utility, and other costs have prompted cash-starved rural schools to shave days from the calendar since at least the late 1970s. But as the trend has grown—schools in at least 10 states now hold classes just four days a week, and nearly a third of Colorado’s districts have adopted the schedule— administrators have noticed some unexpected side benefits. Not only has academic achievement remained steady; schools also report better attendance and higher teacher morale. There are even isolated instances of student performance improving.
It’s gotten to the point that schools without financial crises are beginning to flirt with four-day weeks. In fact, West Grand superintendent Jeff Perry says, after figuring in the remedial and advanced tutoring West Grand will offer on Fridays, “it’s actually going to cost us a little more.”
If the success of other four-day districts is any indication, however, the switch may be well worth it. Neighboring East Grand School District—one of the first in the country to implement a four-day schedule—has raised its attendance rates to as high as 95 percent.
Nor did academics suffer. In one of the few studies on the academic impact of contracted weeks, the Colorado Department of Education compared test scores across the state and found no significant difference between schools with traditional versus condensed schedules, with one exception: “Test scores were much higher for middle schools on four-day weeks,” says Gary Sibigtroth, the assistant education commissioner.
Cookie Ready, a 2nd grade teacher who has worked in East Grand for 35 years, says most teachers at her school use Fridays to plan ahead. “It makes a huge difference,” she says. The uninterrupted time also allows educators to catch up on administrative work that would otherwise have to wait until the weekend—a factor that doesn’t go unnoticed by teacher recruits in Colorado and across the country.
“I can get teachers for whatever subject area I have,” says Michael Kay, principal of Merryville High School, a preK-12 school in rural Louisiana. Kay typically receives six to 12 applications for each job opening—a luxury he attributes to the shortened week. At his previous job, leading a five-day school about 20 miles away, he notes, he got only one to three applications for most teaching spots.
Not everyone is convinced that less is more, however. Little formal research has been done to determine three-day weekends’ effect on academic achievement, and some experts are skeptical. “Instructionally, it’s not very good from a theoretical point of view,” says Carol Merz, dean of the School of Education at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state.
Neither are the longer days a hit with parents of exhausted children or with those who have trouble rearranging their work schedules.
And as much as teachers like to have their weekends free, there is a price to pay, cautions Charles Arseneault, a teacher at four-day Custer High School in rural South Dakota. With seven one-hour periods daily and almost no extra days off, he says his school exceeds the state’s classroom-hour minimum by about 20 percent. He likes the schedule and says the students benefit—the longer class periods allow teachers to cover more material, especially in lab classes that require setting up and taking down projects—but the long days take a toll: “At the end of the day, I’m exhausted.”