Districts Debate Four-Day School Week

School bus in ColoradoABC News
Pueblo's 70 School District is considering cutting back from five-day school weeks to four to combat budget cuts. About a third of the school districts in Colorado are already on a four-day school week, but some parents in Pueblo, Colo., are concerned about the potentially negative impact on kids' education.

On the outskirts of Pueblo, Colo., in a district called Pueblo 70, school buses log a combined total of 7,300 miles every single day. Cutting Fridays off the school schedule could save the district a bundle in gas costs alone.

Enrollment is down across the district, and because of the recession, state funds have been cut back.

VIDEO: Some schools scale back to four-day week.Play

"Out of a $60 million budget, we have to cut about $4.5 million out of our budget," said Dan Lere, superintendent of the Pueblo 70 School District. "Going to a four-day week will net us about $1.2 million in savings."

The school board is considering switching its 8,000 students from the traditional five-day week to four longer school days Monday through Thursday.

They wouldn't be alone.

Schools in at least 19 states already operate only four days a week, and districts in a dozen states are considering making the move to cut back on costs or are considering legislation to allow it.

Reducing the school week is also not a brand new idea. During the oil crisis of the late 1970s, schools in the West switched to shorter weeks to save money on gas for buses.

In Pueblo, the idea has raised debate among parents.

With students logging 50 fewer hours in the classroom over the course of the school year, many are worried that savings for schools come at the expense of children's education.

"How are the teachers going to structure it so they can get the quality of education they would get in a five-day week?" asked Diane House, a mother of two, whose children go to school in Pueblo. "It seems like a long day for a 6 year-old, 7 year-old, 8 year-old to handle. We are tired at the end of an eight-hour or nine-hour workday, and they are just little guys."

Other skeptics point out that four-day school weeks drop hidden costs on families for additional child care.

"Asking working parents to find day care, and you are adding a cost to those people, and the economy the way it is, a lot of families are going to struggle with it," said Kim Arline, mother of two.

Districts Say Fridays Off Boosts Morale

On the other hand, some see the advantages of a Friday off.

"The kids do better, they thrive," said Cherlyn Fair, whose two daughters used to attend a district that had a four-day schedule. She said her children used Friday to do homework and then the family could truly enjoy a weekend with their kids.

There are certainly plenty of four-day week advocates in Colorado. One third of the state's school districts are currently on a four-day week calendar, more than any other state in the nation. None of those districts is as large as Pueblo 70. They are rural districts for the most part. And they claim great success.

In rural Limon, Colo., for example, schools switched to a four-day week three years ago with overwhelming support from the community.

"It gave us a day if we needed to make a doctor's appointment or something that we could do without pulling [the kids] out of school," said Kim Taussig.

Parents rely on family and friends for day care.

"We're lucky we are in a small town, and we have family here," said Gina Jeffreis, a Limon resident. "My in-laws can watch Trey, or my niece."

In Limon, the superintendent estimates the school has cut costs by about 10 percent. They don't run buses on rural routes one day a week. They've cut support staff, such as cafeteria workers, on that day, and they save a small amount on energy costs, though the campus (which houses K-12) is open for activities most Fridays.

Morale and attendance are up. And there's the added bonus of being able to recruit new teachers by offering a four-day work week.

"Our salary base is not the same that you are going to find in the urban areas so we need something to recruit and bring that quality teacher out here," said Limon Superintendent Scott Vratil.

Limon's standardized test results remain above average. In fact, their overall elementary scores were the highest ever last year.

But when we asked seventh graders what they're doing with all that free time on Fridays, they confessed they're sleeping in and "hanging out," not studying.

School Boards Face Budget Crunch: Teachers and Electives on the Line

And that is why critics say the four-day week is not a solution.

At a time when President Obama says kids need more -- not less -- quality time in the classroom, many in the education field worry that a shorter week is moving in the opposite direction.

"Our concern is we are not internationally competitive and we need to be more so with regard to our educational achievement levels ... particularly for children living in poverty. And this direction is not going to make us more internationally competitive," said Jennifer Davis at the National Center on Time and Learning.

Although there is a lot of positive anecdotal evidence, very little quantifiable research has been done on the effect of a four-day school week on academic achievement.

"Policy makers are making a decision driven by economics without having a data base to look to for the impact and that is very problematic," Davis said.

But with dwindling resources, school boards face tough choices -- and cutting a day off the school week may be the lesser of two evils when teachers and elective programs are on the line.

"I am worried if we don't go to the four-day week, then we are going to have to go to make more difficult choices that do directly impact kids' education," Lere said. "The program we would look at would be art, music, PE, foreign language, and any other elective that a student might choose to take."

That's part of the reason Cherlyn Fair would love to see Pueblo 70's board change the school calendar when it meets next week.

"When it comes down to cutting our teachers, our principals, our curriculum, it's not worth losing all of that just to have an extra day of school," she said. "Let's take the risk, let's make that jump, cut the day. Save our teachers, save our curriculum, save our programs. It's a first step in the right direction."