Feature

The Four-Day School Week

Originally intended for cost savings, the shorter week struggles now to find academic benefits, too by KIMBERLY REEVES


Bill Coker was handed a mandate just short of a suicide mission when he took his new job in 1994 as superintendent of a rural New Mexico school district: Put the district on a four-day work week and get our technology bond issue passed, his board demanded.

Located in southwestern part of the state near the Arizona border, the Animas Public Schools sit in a farm and ranch community so isolated that residents have to buy a satellite dish to watch network television. The nearest doctor is 80 miles away. Trustees in Animas, like rural school boards in many Western states, had flirted with the four-day school week at least three times during the previous eight years, but nothing had come of it, Coker says. As soon as trustees felt the heat each time, they backed away.

Chief among the reasons to reconsider the truncated work schedule was a condition most school leaders would dub the "Friday football flu." Four-day school weeks were initiated in the early '70s in New Mexico to defray energy costs, but many rural school districts have chosen the same calendar in recent years to cut the high cost of travel time. Pick any Friday in a rural school community during football season--or basketball or baseball season, for that matter--and half the high school's students would be on a bus traveling to an away game.

By default, every Friday afternoon became a case of chronic spring flu in Animas. Those students and teachers who were left on the high school campus would be stuck in idle. The cost in lost productivity--and increased student and teacher frustration--was high. It was no wonder families picked the last day of the school week to visit the doctor, head out for the long drive to shop in Las Cruces or even skip school to follow the sports teams on the road, Coker says.

So the Animas school board once again decided to tackle the four-day school week. Coker asked the board members if they were serious. Selling the community on the notion of a four-day school week--especially as a new superintendent--was not going to be an easy task, he told them. Coker wasn't far from wrong, he soon discovered.

Board members, the superintendent says, "had been given several stories why they couldn't. They were told they were too large to go to [a four-day week]. ... I told them we could do it, but we would have to win the community to pursue it."

Vocal Opposition
The first meeting to discuss the proposed schedule drew 100 parents packed into the high school auditorium in the 600-student district. The 40 who rose harshly criticized the idea and complained the four-day week was not academically sound. Babysitting children on the fifth day would be difficult, they told Coker, even though most of the town was on a four-day work schedule at a local copper smelter. The 60 parents who were neutral or favored the proposal were absolutely silent, Coker remembers with a laugh.

"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done because the parents were so adamant about the issues," Coker says. "I had one parent who called everyone from the state school board to the governor's office trying to prevent it."

Not one school board member was in the audience that first night. Even the three administrators Coker brought with him were silent. No one had experience with the four-day calendar. Coker knew the hidden deal-breaker was the babysitting. Parents admitted privately they liked their four-day work week, but they weren't necessarily ready to share that day off with their children.

But Coker had some factors in his favor. The new superintendent had served as the high school principal in Animas for four years in the 1980s. In the interim, he had led a smaller district on a four-day calendar in eastern New Mexico. And now his school board seemed committed to seriously considering the calendar option.

"The only reason I survived was that I had been there before," Coker admits. "I wasn't a superintendent from nowhere. I had worked in this district."

Animas moved forward with the four-day week. That was four years ago. The first year, the community survey on the move was split 60-40. That percentage has shifted. The approval rating for the four-day week now hovers around 80 percent.

"The tide has turned," Coker says. "Of course, you always have those parents that didn't want their kids at home in the first place. You're never going to get them over to your side."

A Financial Basis
There was nothing noble or high-minded about the birth of the four-day school week. It was driven by the need to save money. The alternative schedule, first introduced in 1972 in Cimarron, N.M., was intended to cut transportation costs and electric bills during the energy crisis. Under the calendar, the fifth day of instruction of any given week was pared into fourths and tacked onto the end of the remaining four weekdays. The schedule was especially attractive to rural districts, where school children were spending up to four hours on a bus each day.

There was nothing noble or high-minded about the birth of the four-day school week. It was driven by the need to save money. The alternative schedule, first introduced in 1972 in Cimarron, N.M., was intended to cut transportation costs and electric bills during the energy crisis. Under the calendar, the fifth day of instruction of any given week was pared into fourths and tacked onto the end of the remaining four weekdays. The schedule was especially attractive to rural districts, where school children were spending up to four hours on a bus each day.

"When this issue was being debated by the New Mexico Legislature, they ruled out larger districts," says Jack McCoy, deputy director of learning services at the New Mexico Department of Education. "The logic was that in larger districts, you typically had more families with both parents working. The options for child care on that fifth day were fewer. In your rural districts, it was more likely that the child would be working at home with their parents on a farm or ranch."

Fearing backlash from local communities at the time, the New Mexico Legislature attached some stipulations to the four-day school week. The schedule was limited to those school districts with an enrollment under 500. School districts were required to survey their communities first for approval.

Eventually the enrollment cap was raised to 1,000. The legislature also made sure extracurricular activities were eliminated during the four days of instruction, putting more time on task for the condensed week, McCoy says. Even if the hours in the classroom were the same, lawmakers feared the new calendar would be seen as a retreat from higher classroom standards.

Some states, such as Oklahoma, introduced the four-day calendar during the depth of the oil crunch in the early '80s and have barely used it. More recently, legislators in Arkansas worried the recently enacted year-round and four-day calendars would become a mandate, a fear that proved to be groundless. Still other states, such as Utah, saw abuse of the alternative schedule by some school districts that translated the 180-day calendar into 990 seat hours. Scott Bean, Utah’s state superintendent of public instruction, says school districts began adding blocks of minutes and hours in a haphazard way simply to add extra days to vacation time. In the end, the added minutes were squandered.

"You have to add time on a regular basis, something that ends up being a sequential schedule," Bean says. "You have to make sure what you do doesn't impact the education program or the instruction of students. We saw the way school districts were adding time was having little positive effect."

Utah's state board of education revisited the issue in 1995 to tighten the legislation to ensure the shifting of hours was used only for a four-day week.

Academic Merits
In New Mexico, 18 of the state's 89 school districts are on the four-day school week. Even though the schedule was implemented as a fiscal last resort, school districts using the shorter week have realized unexpected educational benefits, McCoy says. Attendance for teachers and students has improved while student achievement on standardized tests has remained stable. And staff recruitment became easier because a four-day work week was more attractive to prospective teachers.

In New Mexico, 18 of the state's 89 school districts are on the four-day school week. Even though the schedule was implemented as a fiscal last resort, school districts using the shorter week have realized unexpected educational benefits, McCoy says. Attendance for teachers and students has improved while student achievement on standardized tests has remained stable. And staff recruitment became easier because a four-day work week was more attractive to prospective teachers.

"The four-day school week was probably one of those few decisions made in education in the name of money that actually ended up having educational benefits in terms of the academic performance of kids," says Joyce Ley, director of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore. "Schools end up operating more efficiently and they can maintain their programs, even when their resources have been reduced. It's been a good choice."

Still, the four-day school week is probably limited to no more than 120 districts nationwide. Unlike more popular alternative schedules, such as year-round education, the four-day week is rarely tracked or assessed. In Oregon, the state department of education only began to compile information on the calendar's use and its effectiveness this year, a state education official says.

The 240-student Cove School District in eastern Oregon has been on the four-day calendar for the last 14 years. Sports schedules precipitated the initial move, but the district has seen other benefits, says John Ott, who serves as the district's administrative assistant. Faced with fewer distractions, class time has been more productive. Students are encouraged to use their day off to take care of doctor appointments. And Fridays can be used by the district for staff development days, when necessary.

On the downside, school days are long for Cove students, Ott says. The school district does its best to get students out of after-school activities by 8 p.m. School starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. each day. And the condensed schedule also means students get out later for the holidays on the 145-day year. On the other hand, a four-day week almost guarantees a week of vacation at Thanksgiving.

"I think it's worked for the most part," Ott says. "There are people who question, from time to time, whether it works as well for youngest elementary students. We know it works well for our high school students. We do see some tiredness among the younger children, and people have asked if students miss out on those five repetitions they have each week on a five-day schedule."

And while most people refer to it as a four-day week, most of these school districts still operate five days. That means staff planning, teacher conferences, student tutoring or sports activities often spill over to the off day, typically a Monday or Friday. Teachers typically are paid for the regular 152-day contract.


False Perceptions
The four-day school week is most predominant in rural areas of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Oregon. Broad latitude in legislation and local autonomy has allowed the schedule to spread throughout Colorado, where 31 of the state's 176 school districts today operate on a four-day schedule. Most of the districts, situated in the most isolated regions, have fewer than 500 students.

Art Ellis, an assistant commissioner in the Colorado Department of Education, does not expect further expansion of the shorter week in Colorado. School board politics is the main reason two four-day districts recently returned to a traditional calendar, says Ellis, whose staff helped draft the original legislation on four-day weeks.

The perception, false as it might be, is that less time is being devoted to school, Ellis says. In the end, that means the four-day week is easier to promote as a financial necessity, rather than an academic option to consider.

"The four-day week is always going to be in more isolated rural communities than it will be in the urban areas. There's always that babysitting issue for urban dwellers," Ellis predicts. "I think we're seeing much more interest in year-round education in our metropolitan areas. A third of our largest 25 districts are now offering some sort of year-round calendar."

The four-day week was the ultimatum offered to voters in a tax referendum election 16 years ago in the 1,100-student East Grand School District in Granby, Colo., the largest district in the state on a four-day week. Located in ski resort areas outside Park City, the school system cut $206,000 in transportation, personnel and substitute costs out of the district's annual $5.5 million budget as a result of the change, former superintendent Gary Sibigtroth says.

The chief reason for the significant savings was that the district chose to take Monday off. The heating and air conditioning systems could be shut down on Friday at noon and not be turned back on until early Tuesday morning.

"The decision kept us from eliminating programs," says Sibigtroth, who now works as a field supervisor in the Colorado Department of Education. "That money we saved kept us from cutting existing programs from the budget."

Just how much a shortened school week can save a district is unclear. However, the cardinal rule for money crunching under the four-day week is to make it accomplish something important for the district, says Joe Newlin, executive director of the National Rural Education Association at Colorado State University.

"You don't cut the money simply to cut it," Newlin says. "You've got to take that money and put it back into staff development or other programs that are favored by the parents. It would be programs that the parents want, but the school would not be able to afford unless they had cost savings in that area."

Twenty years after the oil crunch, only one school district in New Mexico has left the four-day calendar and that was because the school district exceeded the enrollment cap, says McCoy of the state education agency. Once scorned, the four-day week now enjoys popularity in New Mexico that far outstrips that of other alternative schedules, such as year-round education.

A Tough Fight
Superintendent Newell Cleaver knew he would have critics when he shifted the 1,000 students in the Grant School District in eastern Oregon to a four-day calendar two years ago. He didn't expect the opposition to be led by two retired superintendents living in the area, one of them a 20-year veteran of Cleaver's own district.

A community committee had spent a year exploring the new schedule. The four-day school week made a lot of sense in the district. The cost cutting would allow the district to maintain its current programming and low student-teacher ratios. The schedule would be an advantage in teacher recruitment. And the school district was already on a 4.5-day week, a common option for small school districts in Oregon.

Retired educators and administrators, however, were adamant, Cleaver says. The critics would simply not accept the fact the alternative schedule would help, not hurt, student learning. Emotional opponents showed up in force at board meetings. They collected 1,000 signatures on a community petition to derail early support for the change. The school district countered with 1,000 parent surveys, most of them expressing support. Egos and emotion, more than rational arguments and factual statements on the new calendar, dominated the debate, Cleaver says.

"We invited them to the table, but the only thing they brought was their own personal intuition," says Cleaver, noting his district's buses must travel 900 miles on any given school day. "We invited them to prove us wrong, but they really didn't provide us with anything other than rhetoric and opinion. They didn't want information."

If the schedule didn't work, the school district would restore the fifth day, Cleaver promised the community. "There's nothing magical about the five-day week," he told them. And he pointed out that spending only 2.5 hours in class on Friday mornings made no sense, especially for younger children who had to spend two hours on a bus every day. Ultimately, his proposal won out. "I believe you do long studies and you collect data and you look to re-evaluate and assess your situation down the road," Cleaver says. "This schedule is an ongoing process. The opponents said that once we started, we'd never turn back. ... We will turn back if people show us that this is hurting kids."

R.L. Richards, superintendent in Texico, N.M., has studied the four-day week in New Mexico school districts. The biggest challenge, he says he found, was in teacher preparation. Just as in block scheduling, teachers must be prepared to deliver a good lesson and a half during the extended time.

"You can't take roll, talk about your family for a while and then introduce a lesson and wing it," Richards says. "You have to be prepared to teach."

Coker, the superintendent in Animas, N.M., agrees the four-day week cannot stand alone. To implement the schedule effectively a school district must make some accommodations. In Animas, a school breakfast program was added for the first time. Frequent rest periods were provided for younger students. More rigorous classes were shifted to the morning and activities to the afternoon.

The district also strengthened school attendance policies to cut down on student and teacher absences, Coker says. Staff sick leave was reduced by two days to reflect the shorter school year. In other districts that have adopted shorter weeks, older children have been trained by home economics teachers to serve as babysitters.

"We made a concerted effort to change a lot of issues in the year that we implemented the four-day week," Coker says. "You have to make changes."

New Rationale
Two of the most recent school districts to move to a four-day school week--Saratoga, Ark., and Beauregard Parish, La.--added a new twist. These rural school districts moved to the alternative schedule not to save money but because of perceived academic and social benefits.

What limited research has been done on student achievement under the four-day school week has found little or no impact. An early study in Colorado showed "student achievement didn't suffer under the four-day week, but it didn't increase either," says Newlin of the National Rural Education Association at Colorado State University.

Richards, the Texico, N.M., superintendent, found similar results in his own early examination of testing data from the first 10 New Mexico districts on a four-day week. He compared eight years of test scores from four-day and five-day districts in 1990 and found the mean score for student achievement among four-day schools was higher but not high enough to be considered statistically significant.

In the Beauregard Parish Schools in Deridder, La., three of 10 campuses--all three of them K-12 schools--are on a four-day week this year. Joe Aguillard, the district’s superintendent, contends student achievement at those schools is far better than "no harm done," though no one has studied it yet.

"The schedule was created to save money, and even though it does save money, that doesn't negate the positive results for student achievement," Aguillard says. "We gathered statistical information from the state departments of education, and we found the highest achievement scores for 3rd-grade students came out of four-day schools. We've seen some phenomenal gains in our own schools."

Others point out that because schools on a four-day schedule often have small enrollments, a handful of poor test scores can significantly sway percentages on performance measures.

Reinvested Savings
The four-day week, along with a block schedule, was initiated through a grassroots effort in 1996 at the Merryville School in the Beauregard district, serving 650 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. Last year's ACT scores at Merryville, the first school in Louisiana to implement the four-day week, are the highest test scores Beauregard Parish has ever seen. The schedule has more than adequately addressed the community's original concerns: a high dropout rate and too many absences among teachers and students, Aguillard says.

Lewis Diggs, superintendent of the Saratoga, Ark., Public Schools, was hoping for similar results when he implemented the four-day week for his 240-student school district. Diggs poured the $40,000 the school district saved on the new calendar back into a prekindergarten program. Tutoring was added on Mondays, the off day, to help struggling students succeed. The hope was to avoid district consolidation and raise test scores.

"Our test last fall showed our school scores were a only percentile point better on the state's test for the 5th-, 7th- and 10th grades," Diggs says. "It was good they were better, but we were certainly disappointed.

Given all the extra tutoring and effort, we were hoping to see a lot more gains than we had." Still, the superintendent is looking to a future with the four-day calendar in Saratoga. The vast majority of employees and parents are pleased with the new calendar.

"I think the thing that really surprised me was that the four-day week was really not as big a change as I thought it would be," Diggs says. "There are some pros and cons to the four-day week calendar, but this school district was committed to doing something different, to making a difference."

Kimberly Reeves is a free-lance education writer based in Houston. E-mail: kreeves@reporters.net