Schools Start Prepping for Four-Day School Weeks

With local economies across the nation facing budget crises, and worries about India and China overtaking the U.S. in education, school districts are looking to cut costs, avoid layoffs and maintain standards.

Many hope a four-day school week could be the solution.

It's not a new concept -- four-day weeks provided a source of transportation savings during the 1970s energy crisis in New Mexico -- and it seems better suited to smaller, rural districts than large, urban districts.

Advocates say that since students are in school for longer periods of time, they have more interaction with teachers and teachers have more time to make the material clear. Some districts have reported fewer behavioral problems -- students are better rested and focused on their studies.

Opponents worry about younger students' ability to stay focused in a longer day and question whether students are more apt to forget material with longer periods of time away from the classroom.

Nevertheless, in rural America, it's catching on.

More than 120 school districts across the nation, largely in the West, have adopted it, with an average annual savings of 25 percent in utilities and transportation costs. Colorado has the highest number of districts running on four-day weeks -- approximately one third of its 180 districts.

In Idaho the Snake River and Preston school districts will begin a four-day week this fall. Barbara Taylor, Preston superintendant, says the 2,500-student district, located near Idaho Falls, expects to see most of the savings coming from transportation and reduced pay for bus drivers. "We're hoping to save $150,000, not a huge cost savings, but with the examples of the districts around us, we are going to try it for a year," Taylor said.

Taylor said switching to four days was a better option than laying off teachers or cutting their pay. As for a response from the community, Taylor says she hasn't heard much -- yet.

"I really haven't had any negative response or likewise I haven't had anyone say, 'I'm very excited.' I've had some parents concerned over the length of time their kids are going to be in school, but it hasn't been, 'I'm mad.' That could change when the school year starts," said Taylor.

The Custer school district in Custer, S.D., shifted to four-day weeks back in 1995 to save money. Since then, the district saves about $70,000 a year in transportation.

Custer district superintendent Tim Creal says they've seen many other benefits, such as increased attendance rates and adds that the community has embraced the four-day week. High schools train students to babysit so they can care for the younger students on Fridays, when school is out. The YMCA and other community organizations have pitched in to provide activities. Plus, "we feel we get more face-to-face time with students, particularly those who participate in sports activities," Creal told ABCNews.com. "We focus our sports activities on Thursday nights and Fridays so they're in class the other four days."

Christine Donis-Keller, a researcher at the center for education policy at the University of Southern Maine, did a comprehensive study of several districts on four-day weeks across the country. While she cautions there isn't much rigorous research yet, Donis-Keller says Custer's positive results are common.

"It doesn't seem to negatively impact achievement, and in some communities they see a slight bump up," said Donis-Keller. She attributes that slight jump to increased student attendance and a greater focus on academics.

In Custer, "our scores went up a little bit," said Creal. "We don't think there's any student achievement increase that we can attribute to a four-day school week but we do know it didn't go down."

Four Day School Weeks: More Questions Than Answers

Andrea Beesley, senior director of Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, a research and consulting nonprofit based in Denver, says there are concerns that plague both parents and communities switching to four-day weeks.

"Depending on the setting, there's a lot of different things that people worry about. Communities worry about what kids are doing when there's no school. They wonder if the kids will get into trouble," Beesley said. "Sometimes parents are worried about childcare. Some people worry about how to keep young students engaged and energized when they have a longer day."

Heather Bradshaw, a single mother with a son in the fourth grade in Peach County, Ga., worries children aren't getting enough time with teachers. Last year, her son's district switched to four days.

"I don't feel like they're having the necessary time in the classroom," said Bradshaw. "The schedule has slowed him down."

Other parents in Peach County prefer the shorter week and say they don't mind finding child care for their kids once a week.

"It makes the children's weekend a little better, so they get more rest," said LaKeisha Johnson, who sends her fourth-grade daughter to the Boys & Girls Club on Mondays, when school is out.

Larger Districts More Complicated

Still, for urban districts, like Broward County, Fla., switching to a four day week is too big a task. The county – with 30 cities and nearly a quarter of a million students — considered a shortened schedule last year.

Superintendent James Notter says the topic didn't even get past the discussion phase. "It didn't get too much out of the think tank," he told ABCNews.com. "We thought 'Well, what are the students going to do on Fridays? If organizations like the YMCA pitch in, who's going to pay for those services?'" So instead of shortening the week, the district consolidated office space and cut down on the administration's budget.

In New Mexico, the state legislature restricts the four-day week to districts with fewer than 1,000 students.

"The logic was that in larger districts, you typically had more families with both parents working," said Jack McCoy, deputy director of learning services at the New Mexico Department of Education. "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."

In such districts, the benefits are clear.

"There are some savings. Some see between two and nine percent savings, and those monies can be redirected to instructions," Donis-Keller said. "Some studies show they've been able to save teaching positions through the four-day school week. And teacher absenteeism has also decreased."

For the Custer school district, it appears that after 15 years, the four-day school week is here to stay. "There's been no discussion about getting rid of it," says Creal. "The four-day week in this community has become a way of life."

ABCNews.com contributor Vanessa de la Vina is a member of the University of Florida at Gainesville ABC News on Campus bureau.

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