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Feature                                  Pages 28-32

The Four-Day School Week 

A Minnesota district, facing a dire fiscal state, takes a dramatic detour in school operations for four years

Last September, North Branch Area Public Schools in east-central Minnesota started the school year in the manner common to most of the 13,500 school districts across the country — with five days of instruction per week. On its face, that detail hardly seems noteworthy. For us in North Branch, it marked a victory in every sense of the word.

When I came to the 3,000-student North Branch Area Public Schools as superintendent, the school district had endured multiple years of cost cutting and budget reductions. There was community angst over disappearing opportunities for students, but the consensus was not that the schools needed money. Rather, we needed to live within our means. Several levy attempts had failed. Little hope existed for the state to increase funding in the near future. Legislators were grappling with budget issues of their own.

For two years after my arrival in 2007, we gathered as administrators each winter to plan for the next year knowing we would have less money to perform the same function. In each of those years, administrators did a superlative job protecting funds for the classroom and minimizing the impact on students.

 Henton Feature
Superintendent Deborah Henton says the four-day week shined a light on inequitable funding of public education.

 

After the second year, though, it was becoming clear we had exhausted our ability to keep the impact from dramatically changing the landscape of education in our community. Something big was needed. That something turned out to be the four-day week.

Mounting Pressure

The four-day school week had been on my radar for a year or more. A school board member asked that I look further into the schedule as a possible solution to our funding crunch. The idea also had been suggested by staff and community members during budget seasons. I researched every four-day school district I could find, both within Minnesota and beyond — maybe a dozen in all at the time. I sought research material on the schedule and spoke with superintendents with experience overseeing a four-day week.

I reported findings to the school board in 2009, at which time I did not recommend the district move to the schedule, at least not yet. There was still a chance the state could increase funding, and we knew our stakeholders would have another chance to approve an operating levy.

Soon, those hopes were exhausted. The state didn’t produce any significant increases, and another levy attempt failed. Community members and staff were clamoring for leadership to protect the schools from a spate of annual teacher layoffs that would dramatically drive up class size and place more duties on an already greatly reduced and exhausted staff.

I informed the school board that our recommendation for 2010-11 would include a four-day week. We began researching all of the adjustments we would need to make as a result. Agreement with employee groups was secured. The 2010-11 budget was built on the four-day week. Three public meetings, required by the Minnesota Department of Education, were hosted.

As expected, the announcement caused turbulence in the community. Moving to a four-day week created concerns about child care, unsupervised teenagers, the extended length of the day, less class time and even fear that students’ work ethic would be eroded by attending school less. Pressure mounted on the school board and its 5-0 consensus to consider a four-day week, given at a budget work session, began to erode.

In the end, the new schedule was approved by a 3-2 vote, but celebration was tempered by the monumental work in front of us to prepare our schools and families for the change — and the national attention we suddenly received as a result of the decision.

Attention Grabbing

As does happen, our four-day week became newsworthy on a faulty premise — that the North Branch schools were reducing class time by a full day. Four-day weeks were suddenly a topic being discussed by gubernatorial candidates on the campaign trail. I appeared on CNN to dispel myths about the schedule, such as students losing 20 percent of their instructional time. National news coverage appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

 

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In our four years on the schedule, none of the dire predictions came to pass. We did not see an increase in juvenile crime or teen pregnancy as a result of having Mondays off. We did not see a great scramble by parents to procure child care.

 

There were challenges, primarily around operating for four days while the rest of the world turns on five. There were fewer days to schedule meetings and frequent explanations to outsiders for why our staff members were unavailable on Mondays. Parents of some younger students reported fatigue issues with the lengthened days that were required to offset lost learning time on Monday.

By and large though, students loved the schedule. We surveyed multiple times a year for three years. The student responses were overwhelmingly positive. The surveys also helped identify trouble spots such as the need to be more judicious about assigning homework. Scheduling student activities also was challenging at times, especially in spring and fall when daylight fades in the afternoon.

All in all, we handled the four-day week well. When we proposed the schedule, there was almost no end to community members asking us to reconsider. I heard from many of them, as well, when we decided last spring after four years of a shorter week to go back to five days. This time they wanted us to keep the four-day week.

Political Ramifications

Over those four years, our elementary school went from a “needs improvement” school to a “Reward School,” ranking it among the top 15 percent of Title I schools across Minnesota. To be clear, I do not credit the four-day week with this notable improvement. The research I conducted clearly showed that four-day school weeks neither help nor harm student achievement. Achievement in North Branch over the four years bears that out.

Neither were we making a political point with our four-day week. Our motive was simple and transparent: Reduce the amount of annual teacher layoffs and preserve funds for the classroom by finding savings outside instruction. We were not trying to “scare” our community into passing a tax levy. It wouldn’t have worked anyway. The community opposed a levy even after the schedule was instituted.

Despite our intentions, it would be wrong to suggest the four-day week did not have a political impact. Our move to four days put a spotlight on inequitable funding and greatly increased the sense of urgency to correct that. It took a few years, but the debate resulted in an equitable funding bill that had some of its greatest impact on, yes, the North Branch Area Public Schools.

Additional funding allowed us to consider a return to five days in 2014-15. And, of course, we did go back. It only makes sense with the world running on a five-day week.

Consistent Rationale

Looking at our experience with the four-day week and why we were able to make the change successfully, a few things come to mind. School district leaders considering an option as drastic as this one would be well-advised to use the talents of the district’s leadership team to explore all possibilities and challenges. Encourage staff to creatively address issues and begin communication around the decision-making process early.

Most importantly, create a simple, effective rationale for your decision and stay with it. The courage needed to ride out the early rough stages — and you will need courage! — comes from conviction. I would caution against a solution such as a four-day week for those who do not believe it will accomplish what is intended. You will have your confidence in your decision sorely tested.

When drastic changes are proposed, stakeholders need to have faith their district is doing the right thing. Reacting to rumors, ever-changing public talking points and an evolving rationale, I believe it starts to look like “pin the tail on the reason” to a populace looking for steady leadership.

Perhaps one of the most effective statements I ever made to the community was this: “If you give us a chance, we will show you how successful the schedule can be.” People are fair-minded. They gave us the chance, and I think the staff at North Branch showed what a successful four-day week looks like.

Positive Outcomes

The four-day week did not solve all of our funding issues. Even with the shorter schedule and despite sharp budget adjustments and closing a school, our class sizes were high — 33 students per teacher in 3rd grade and close to 30 in 1st and 2nd grade. The reality is we never believed the four-day schedule would reduce class size. We were only hoping it could mitigate increases. That was accomplished.

Given how successful the schedule proved to be, and the funding improvements that resulted at both local and state levels, I absolutely would do it again. Getting past initial misgivings and frustration took courage and patience, but it was the right thing for kids.

After all, that’s what it’s all about!

Deb Henton is superintendent of the North Branch School District in North Branch, Minn. E-mail: dhenton@northbranch.k12.mn.us. Patrick Tepoorten, coordinator of community relations in North Branch, contributed to this article.



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