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Pros and cons of four-day school week explored

Article Date: 
20 September, 2013 (All day)

Administrators in the Morgan County School District plan to survey parents to measure interest in the four-day school week.  The estimated 292 schools in the United States that have tried operating on a four-day school week have discovered many benefits and drawbacks along the way.  Here are some of them:
Saving money is what initially drives many school districts to explore a four-day school week.
With 4,000 students in seven schools in 2009, the school district in Peach County, Georgia, was looking for a way to fill a $1 million budget shortfall.  Without moving to the schedule, the district would have had to lay off 39 teachers.  The first year alone, the move saved $400,000.  Substitute costs were down 76 percent, utility costs slashed 8 percent, while transportation costs dropped 35 percent.
After a three-day weekend, teachers on the shortened schedule around the nation say students are less tired and more focused, which helps raise test scores and attendance.
Proponents of the shortened schedule in Oregon say teachers can be more effective and engage students better in a longer class period.
While some schools say they experience higher test scores after switching to a four-day school week, experts nationwide say the research isn’t conclusive.  Anecdotes abound, but scientific data just doesn’t back it up.
But everyone seems to agree that the switch doesn’t hurt academics, according to University of Southern Maine researchers in 2009.  The shortened schedule has “either no impact or a positive impact on academic performance,” according to the report.
Many students and even parents welcome the chance for a consistent three-day weekend every weekend, allowing for more family time.  The extra day is another opportunity to get homework done as well.
In addition, the off-day is a great day for doctor and dentist appointments.  In rural Montana, students call their Mondays off “go-to-town day.”
For older students, the off-day is a day to go to work, intern, or even attend college classes.  Some employers say a student employee/intern is more likely to get a better idea how a business works when they can attend a whole day on the job, rather than just a few hours after school.
Other entrepreneurial older students have taken babysitting classes and offer to watch younger students on the off-day.  In some states, the Red Cross has stepped in to offer babysitting certification classes to high school students wishing to pad their resume in preparation for new babysitting opportunities.
The schedule can actually equate to more predictable child care, say supporters who have experienced it in Oregon.  Instead of half days and other days off for teacher in-service spread throughout the year, the off-day is consistent.  In addition, the fifth day can be used to make up for school days missed due to inclement weather rather than tacking more time on to the end of the school year.
In Coos Bay, Oregon, teachers on the four-day schedule use Fridays for Professional Learning Committee days to collaborate with colleagues, analyze testing data and plan individual student interventions.  All over the nation, teachers are using the off-day to plan lessons, check papers, train, tutor students, and hold parent teacher conferences.
Some teachers like the idea of three-day weekends, which means school districts with a four-day schedule can improve teacher recruitment.  Although students would be in school fewer days, teachers would not see a cut in their paychecks since they are teaching the same number of hours.
Oregon’s “Friday school” effectively keeps a handle on failing grades on a week-by-week basis so missing assignments don’t get so overwhelming for struggling students.  Friday school is required for any student with a failing grade.  It also reduces the need for remediation courses, freeing up special education teachers to focus on the students with more serious disabilities.  “Friday school” is also a chance to offer accelerated programs by employing part-time tutors funded by private donations.
Child care on off days seems to be the biggest complaint about the shortened schedule.
For those districts that have switched, they say that problem seems to work itself out.  Throughout the nation, area churches, local Boys & Girls Clubs and businesses have rallied together to provide tutoring and day care options on the off days.  In Peach County, Georgia, programs usually cost a few dollars per day per student.
Admittedly, child care problems are less of a problem in rural areas than urban ones.  Interestingly, urban areas are more apt to embrace a year-round calendar than a four-day school week, said one Colorado administrator.
Where there is a savings in the pro column, there has to be a cut that makes its way to the con column.  In this case, it’s the classified employees—the food service personnel, janitors, secretaries, etc.—that have to accept fewer hours and therefore less pay.  In Oregon, that meant a 20 percent cut in pay.
Morgan has already seen this when it cut bus routes this year and moved bus drivers to fewer hours in order to save health benefit expenses.
On the flip side of the coin, the coaches spending weekends at sports activities are putting in longer hours.
Some detractors say that a four-day schedule means students are asked to move at a slightly quicker pace.  Some have suggested the four-day school week is better for older students than younger ones who can “forget what they have learned over the week” without one more instructional day.  
Teachers also have to rearrange lesson plans to four longer class periods.  In rural Idaho where some schools have used the four-day pattern for years, teachers say they have had to cut “fluff” out of their curriculum to compensate.  Some states, such as New Mexico, have mandated an elimination of extracurricular activities during the four weekdays of school instruction.
In 2011, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke out in opposition to the four-day school week, saying it hurts children academically.
Other disadvantages are that the four-day week takes more of a local community commitment than other schedule options, and athletic teams may have difficulty in scheduling games against opponents that are on five-day schedules.  
Last week, The Morgan County News published Part 1 of this series.  Please see Part 3, with a closer look at schools across the nation using this new schedule, next week.