Sunday, February 21, 2010

360 Sunday In-Depth: 4-Day School Weeks - Saving Money but Short-changing Students?

School districts across the country have either implemented a 4-day school week or considering the idea. While the concept does save money, how, if at all, does it affect the face of education and impact students?

With budget cuts looming, more Georgia school systems are considering switching to four-day school weeks.

Peach County took the step last fall when officials decided to hold classes Tuesdays through Fridays. It was a way to fill a nearly $800,000 budget shortfall. Now, several school systems around the state are considering or planning a similar move.

Peach County officials have estimated they saved $313,000 in transportation and utilities costs by making the schedule change. Since the decision was made, Peach County has become an example of the four-day week for systems across the state.

C.B. Mathis, assistant superintendent of operations in Peach County, said he has received calls from at least 20 school systems seeking information about the change.

Maryland's Montgomery County is debating whether to shrink its school-bus routes. In California, where state law doesn't require school districts to provide transportation, some districts are planning to cancel bus service altogether. But perhaps the most radical solution is one that was employed during the last big gas crunch, in the 1970s: the four-day school week.

Back then, only a handful of districts switched to the shortened calendar (and most returned to a five-day week once the crisis subsided). This time around, how ever, nearly 1 in 7 school boards nationwide is considering whether to drop a day, according to a recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators. Of 546 superintendents surveyed, nearly half said they plan to cut back on field trips, and 15% will eliminate extra curricular activities that require busing. Nearly a third reported having to lay off teachers, while others have closed down schools entirely. "A four-day schedule can often be the least painful option a district has," says Marty Strange, policy director for Rural School and Community Trust, a nonprofit in Arlington, Va. "It's really a small bandage on a deep cut."

With the new calendar, the number of hours pupils spend in class won't change. Instead, each of the four days of instruction will be lengthened an hour, and recesses and other breaks will be shortened. At the district's junior highs, for example, the school day will commence at 7:50 a.m. and end at 4:09 p.m.

So far there have been no formal studies on the effects that a condensed schedule has on student performance. Anecdotally, however, the experiment appears to be paying off for some districts, both financially and academically. Five years ago, Kentucky's Webster County school district faced drastic budget shortfalls caused by waning revenue from local property taxes. But after debating whether to close one of the district's seven schools, officials decided instead to institute a Tuesday-to-Friday schedule, which to date has saved more than $300,000 on transportation, utility and insurance costs.

Student absenteeism has also fallen remarkably in Webster County. Ditto for teachers, which means fewer resources are being used to pay substitute teachers. Administrators also credit the schedule change for significant academic gains. The 2,000-student district went from being ranked 111th in the state on standardized tests in 2003 to 53rd last year. Says Riley Ramsey, district director of personnel and technology: "We took our budget savings and plowed it right back into instructional content," such as hiring one-on-one tutors and extending kindergarten hours.

Despite such optimistic reports from Webster County and several other districts that have switched to four-day weeks, many experts believe that, if anything, American youth should be spending more days in school than they already are. Most states mandate a minimum of 180 school days a year. That's three weeks shorter than nearly every industrialized nation in Europe and Asia, where pupils regularly outperform U.S. students in math, science and reading. In China and Korea, for example, school is in session more than 220 days a year.

Closer to home, a San Francisco--based network of charter schools called the Knowledge Is Power Program keeps its 16,000 students in class 60% longer than a typical public school, and last year 100% of its eighth-grade classes outperformed their district averages in both language arts and mathematics on state-administered exams. "All the evidence says the more hours our schools are open, the better off our kids are," says Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston research-and-advocacy group devoted to extending school schedules. "Cutting days puts our country's economic future at risk."

For parents, a more immediate concern with four-day school weeks is what to do with younger kids on the fifth day, a burden administrators often acknowledge in letters they send home explaining the new policy. One district in central Minnesota that is launching a Tuesday-to-Friday schedule on Sept. 2 is trying to help families with child-care issues by training high schoolers as babysitters. But many families can't afford to hire outside help. "You're likely to see a lot more kids staying home alone," says Strange. "That only leads to trouble."

Parents also worry that their children won't have the time--or the energy--for after-school activities. "Some people caution an eight-hour day is already tough for younger kids," says Marc Egan, federal-affairs director for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. But for many districts, the four-day week is the only way to keep from having to eliminate athletics and other extra curriculars. The extra day off also gives students more time to work on projects or at a part-time job. "Now that economic tides have turned, this is a godsend for families where kids' jobs are helping make ends meet," says Webster County superintendent James Kemp.

Despite initial resistance, communities appear to have been overwhelmingly won over by the four-day school week. South Dakota's Custer school district adopted a Monday-to-Thursday schedule in 1995, and nearly 90% of parents now support it. Superintendent Tim Creal says the kids are more engaged in their studies, and though test scores have not changed significantly, teachers feel they cover 20% more material because of longer classes each day and less absenteeism. Creal wouldn't think of going back to a five-day week. "I'd be tarred and feathered for even suggesting it," he says. Which also means it's unlikely summer vacation will get downsized anytime soon.

On the Web:

National Center for Time and Learning

American Association of School Administrators

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