Doing More With Less
School officials in Saratoga, Arkansas, have adopted an unusual reform strategy: To boost student achievement, they've cut the school week from five days to four. And they aren't alone. Three schools in Louisiana's Beauregard Parish recently pared a day out of their week, too, for the same reason.
Four-day weeks were common in the rural West during the 1970s, as hard-pressed districts moved to trim utility and transportation costs. But now the shortened week is being adopted in a handful of Southern schools as a way to improve academics. By packing five days of schooling into four extended days of classes, these schools are saving money that they're using to add to their offerings. Although many observers remain skeptical, educators in the schools that have gone to the abbreviated week say they are on to something that works.
"The main reason we're doing this is that we had done the same things over and over," says Lewis Diggs, superintendent of the 270-student Saratoga school system. "And there's a saying around here: 'The definition of stupidity is doing the same things and expecting new results.' "
Most states require school districts to get special approval to go to four days. But in Arkansas, the legislature this summer handed the decision over to the districts. "That was no accident," says state Representative Dennis Young, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "I meant for it to be a local decision."
So far, the tiny Saratoga district in southwest Arkansas is the only district to sign up. Saratoga's school board adopted the four-day week last June, hoping to save some $50,000 to plow into other education services. So far, the savings have paid for a new preschool program, special tutorials, and subsidized college courses for high school students. District officials hope the new offerings will help raise test scores enough to move the district off the state list of academically distressed systems.
The longer weekend seems to make staff members happy. It has already cut teacher absenteeism by 50 percent.
Schools in the district are open Tuesday through Friday and closed Saturday through Monday, except for special services, like Monday tutorials. To meet state attendance requirements, the district lengthened the school day by a whopping 90 minutes.
Although some parents initially were concerned about Monday child care, relatives have pitched in to help. And a number of families have found that the longer day fits their schedules better. With school open from 7:55 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., parents can drop their kids off and pick them up on their way to and from work. Local officials concede that child-care concerns would be a more pressing problem in bigger districts.
"I approve of the four-day week, and my son likes it," says Janice Green, whose 17-year-old attends Saratoga High School. "He's not under pressure to do a lot of work real fast."
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the law. Luke Gordy, vice chairman of the Arkansas board of education, wants lawmakers to revisit the statute. He worries that Saratoga's school day is too long for some children. "I disagree with the law because
the legislation addressed it strictly on financial considerations and not on academic achievement," he says. "But if Saratoga is a test case, I'd like to see what they accomplish."
Officials in the 6,600-student Beauregard Parish school system in rural southwest Louisiana asked the state school board twice before securing approval two years ago for a four-day-week pilot project in one of its K-12 schools. Two more Beauregard schools won approval for such a program last fall.
The district's sole goal, says assistant superintendent Joe Aguillard, is to improve academics. That happens, in part, by lengthening class periods. And all the extracurricular activities that might have cut into class time are on the off-day, which is Friday. The schools also use Friday for voluntary programs. Singer High School, for example, has what it calls "Fabulous Fridays" from 8 to 11:30 in the morning, when students can work with tutors or practice for standardized tests.
Even though the idea was not introduced to save money, Merryville High School eliminated $10,000 in substitute-teacher costs last year alone. Merryville, which was the first school in the district to adopt the program, saw teacher absences drop from 823 days in the 1995-96 school year to 599 days last year.
Communities with the four-day schedules worked hard to drum up broad support before making the change, Aguillard notes. "I believe in it for those schools that want it to work," he says. "But it should not be used in schools and communities that aren't ready for it."
Saratoga officials have received so many inquiries from other districts about their four-day week that they've put together a packet of materials on the program. The Beauregard schools set aside time each week for visitors.
As upbeat as the Saratoga and Beauregard officials are, longtime observers of the four-day week in Western states warn not to expect too much from the revised schedule. Joseph Newlin, director of the Office of Rural Education at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says that studies of student achievement conducted in the 1980s were inconclusive. "We found that achievement didn't go up or down dramatically," Newlin says. "The only conclusion you could draw is that it didn't cause a downturn."
The Utah board of education, concerned that some students were not getting enough class time, ended its popular four-day option in 1994 after some districts began experimenting with three-day weeks. Still, the board approved a pilot four-day program this year in five districts. The tightly regulated five-year experiment requires the districts to show improvements in student achievement.
In New Mexico, the four-day week is so entrenched in 18 of the state's 89 districts that communities would revolt if it were taken away, according to Jack McCoy, an official at the state department of education. "It's a rural state," he says, "and it's beneficial to have kids at home to help out."
—Robert C. Johnston