Four-day? Five-day? Preston considers returning to conventional schedule

Lisa Wakley class, Preston
Lisa Wakley leads her first-grade class in a song at Preston’s Pioneer Elementary School. Wakley prefers the Monday-through-Thursday schedule. She says students retain knowledge over the long weekends and quickly acclimate to the longer school day. “The kids really adjust to it very well. After two weeks, they’re going.”

Five years after shifting to a four-day schedule, the Preston School District is reviewing the idea.

Trustees will discuss the issue at their Nov. 18 meeting, and could vote that evening. District officials hope to make their decision — to either keep their existing schedule intact or return to a five-day calendar — in ample time for the 2016-17 school year.

But first, the district is studying up on the issue. Administrators have calculated the district’s savings from the four-day calendar. They have analyzed the effects on test results — although the numbers are inconclusive. And they have launched an online survey; 1,100 emails went out to district patrons Wednesday.

Marc Gee, Preston
Hired earlier this year, Preston superintendent Marc Gee knows the calendar decision will be a defining moment for him, and for district trustees. “There’s going to be fallout one way or the other.”

Trustees face an unenviable decision, Superintendent Marc Gee said this week, but they are making good on a promise to a take a second look at the cost-cutting move.

“We’ve got to step back now,” Gee said. “Maybe our reason for moving forward is not the same as we’ve had before.”

Preston at a glance

Tucked into the southeast corner of Idaho, just a few miles from the Utah line, Preston is among 33 districts that have adopted a four-day schedule since 2006-07. The Great Recession was the driving impetus behind this statewide proliferation, and Preston was no exception. The district adopted a four-day schedule in 2011-12, strictly to save costs.

The savings are quantifiable, but the debate revolves around values less easily measured. Supporters say the five-day schedule provides more flexibility for families, and for students juggling sports and after-school work. Critics say the long days wear students down and cut into family time and outside activities.

Five years ago, district officials couched the schedule change as temporary — a decision they would reverse as soon as state K-12 funding rebounds.

The state hasn’t fully restored the budget. However, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s 2016-17 K-12 budget proposes to lift schools’ “operational funding” back to pre-recession levels. With budgets at least trending upward, some parents and patrons have reminded district leaders of their predecessors’ promise to revisit scheduling issues.

Budget breakdown

Shortly after Gee began work as superintendent on July 1, the school board handed him a summer homework assignment: quantify the savings stemming from the four-day schedule.

The bottom line comes to about 3 percent on a $12.2 million budget. According to Gee’s calculations, the four-day calendar is worth $334,000 to $394,000 a year.

The first $115,000 a year comes from the state, as a grant reflecting savings on busing. Here, Preston benefited from fortunate timing. When the Legislature decided to give districts a cut of their savings on transportation, lawmakers set 2010-11 as the baseline year; that just happened to be the last year Preston ran bus routes five days a week.

Another $155,000 to $216,000 comes from a boost in state funding, based on student attendance. K-12 money is carved up based on how many students show up for school; high attendance brings a boost in funding. It may not be a direct correlation, but Preston’s attendance has improved under the four-day calendar, since students miss fewer classes for Friday night sporting events or doctor’s appointments.

The numbers weren’t a big surprise to Jody Shumway, chairman of Preston’s school board. But the financials are a big consideration. If the district went back to a five-day schedule, the board might be forced to seek a supplemental levy to make up the difference.

Ninety-three of Idaho’s 115 school districts collect a voter-approved property tax levy; Preston does not.

Is it good for students?

The report card is inconclusive.

Preston crunched numbers from two standardized tests: the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, a previous version of Idaho’s standardized exam; and the ACT, a college entrance exam.

ISAT scores improved slightly after the switch, in elementary and secondary grades alike. In general, Preston’s ACT scores improved as well; they exceed national averages but lag behind state averages.

The changes are so slight that they probably are not statistically significant, Gee said. In other words, it might be impossible to determine a connection between the school calendar and the test scores.

The lack of conclusive data frustrates district leaders, but the situation isn’t unique to Preston. National research into four-day schools has been limited as well. And in Preston, that only complicates the decision facing volunteer trustees.

“They’re being asked to quantify something that’s not necessarily quantifiable,” Gee said.

Surveying the community

So far, public comment on the calendar issue has been anecdotal and self-selecting. A smattering of parents have testified at school board meetings, on both sides of the issue.

The email survey is designed to provide district leaders with a larger sample.

The survey asks patrons to gauge their satisfaction with the four-day week — but it’s also designed to dig deeper into the underlying questions. The district wants parents to talk about their kids’ physical well-being, classroom behavior and ability to participate in after-school activities. Patrons are also asked to confront the budget realities: If Preston restored a five-day schedule, should the district cut salaries or programs to make up the difference, or should the district pursue a supplemental levy?

“I think it’s going to be really good to get a pulse of the community,” said Brooke Palmer, a new trustee who took office in July.

What happens next?

Survey results should be compiled by Nov. 13 — in advance of the board’s Nov. 18 meeting. Trustees won’t necessarily vote at that time. They could request more information, pushing a decision back to December or beyond.

IMG_3799
Mary Ann Cox has three children in Preston schools. The longer school day leaves her children tired — and because of the time crunch, she limits her 13-year-old son to one after-school sports team during the academic year. “We have to pick and choose unlike any place I’ve ever seen.”

Gee is trying to keeping his distance. He has experience in Sugar-Salem, a five-day district, and a year’s experience as superintendent in Garden Valley, a four-day district. Garden Valley provided a “good” experience, he said, but he doesn’t want to push the trustees in one direction or the other.

Mary Ann Cox — a parent who has testified at school board meetings in favor of a five-day calendar — gives district leaders high marks for process and protocol. Administrators have patiently answered questions. Trustees have listened respectfully. But she believes she’s fighting the tide of popular opinion.

“I don’t have high hopes that it is going back,” she said Wednesday. “I’m just praying that they make an educated decision.”

Coming next month

5-day-series-on-4-day-schools270How do four-day schools affect students and teachers, parents and families, taxpayers and communities?

Idaho Education News and Idaho Public Television are teaming up to get answers.

Log on to IdahoEdNews.org from Nov. 16-20 for “Rescheduled Education,” an in-depth look at four-day schools. Then, watch Idaho Public TV’s “Idaho Reports” on Nov. 20 to see and learn more.