The transition to a four-day school week

The Homedale School District switched to a four-day school schedule in 2014, because it was looking to save money.

The savings never materialized.

But teachers and administrators have found other reasons to like the change. Teachers have more time to collaborate and train. Students have more time to dig into complicated, time-consuming topics. Fridays are a day for extra help and the occasional field trip.

“There’s definitely a transition,” said Superintendent Rob Sauer. “(But) we have a community that is, at this point, very supportive of a four-day week.”

On Thursday, Homedale completed its first school year on a four-day schedule, the first year of a two-year experiment. This process has become almost commonplace in rural Idaho. Forty-two of the state’s 115 school districts now operate on a four-day schedule, as do 10 charter schools. Come fall, the Magic Valley’s Hagerman School District will join most of its neighbors and make the switch.

In all, nearly 27,000 Idaho students attend a four-day school — accounting for nearly a tenth of the state’s traditional school and charter school enrollment.

With the growing popularity of the four-day calendar, an informal information network of sorts has sprung up. When Homedale decided on making the switch, a community committee of educators, trustees and parents sought advice from their counterparts in Idaho and Oregon. Sauer is a native of Hagerman — so, not surprisingly, Hagerman Superintendent Eric Anderson has asked Sauer for advice.

‘It’s 3 o’clock, we should be out … ‘

The four-day school week brings with it a longer school day, since districts still need to provide at least the minimum instructional hours required under state law.

And that made for a tough adjustment at first, said Christine Ketterling, one of Homedale’s three second-grade teachers. Homedale added more than an hour to its daily schedule. At the grade school, most of that time was added to the end of the day, pushing the final bell back to 3:50 p.m. Early in the semester, Ketterling said she would catch herself looking at the wall clock and thinking what she could tell her students were thinking: “’It’s 3 o’clock, we should be out.’”

Ketterling made adjustments. Every day at 1:45 p.m., her students get a short “brain break.” They get a few minutes for yoga stretches or chair pushups.

However, the longer days also have their advantages. It’s easier for high school teachers to conduct science labs or other hands-on projects. In the elementary school, teachers have more time to dig into math and English language arts — the two topics at the heart of the Idaho Core Standards. For Teri Uria’s 23 fourth-grade students, that means more time to brainstorm and focus on their three- to five-paragraph writing assignments. “I think we’re able to dig deeper into things.”

Social adjustments

A new school schedule is perhaps the most obvious change that comes with a four-day schedule. But it isn’t the only adjustment. And some affect households.

For working parents, a four-day schedule affects their need for child care. This was a concern in Jerome County’s Valley School District, which decided in July to shift to a Tuesday-through-Friday schedule for 2014-15.

“There is no daycare available in this area, so (parents) are going to find it hard to have babysitters so they can work on Mondays,” Lorna West, a Hazelton parent, wrote on the Twin Falls Times-News’ Facebook page at the time.

Sauer heard concerns about child care as well. But for some parents, he noted, the switch has turned out to be a wash; the longer school day alleviated the need for after-school child care.

For low-income households, the four-day schedule poses another potential hardship: reduced access to free or reduced-price lunch. That’s not a small concern. Nearly 47 percent of Homedale students qualified for subsidized lunch in 2014-15 — slightly below the state average of 49 percent.

Homedale partners with the Idaho Foodbank on its backpack program; every week, students in need receive a backpack filled with food to help feed their families through the weekend. Homedale is also working with a local food pantry to help students in need, Sauer said.

Savings and value

The conventional wisdom holds Idaho’s four-day school districts are in more desperate financial straits than districts on a traditional calendar. The numbers back that up, to an extent. Eighty-nine percent of districts on a five-day calendar collected voter-approved supplemental tax levies in 2014-15; for the four-day districts, that number is 67 percent. But Valley district patrons renewed a levy in May 2014, shortly before the district announced its calendar shift. Hagerman voters approved a two-year levy in March — again, weeks before administrators announced a move to a four-day calendar.

In Homedale, however, the schedule shift was borne of economic reality. When voters rejected supplemental levies in two elections in 2013, the district put all of its expenses on the table.

The new schedule has yielded minimal cost savings. And that should come as no surprise. In 2008, when only 14 districts and two charters were experimenting with a four-day schedule, a State Department of Education report downplayed the potential savings. Districts could expect 2 percent in savings, by cutting transportation and food service budgets.

When Homedale switched to a four-day schedule, the district decided not to cut pay for bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other classified staff. These workers are hard enough to hire, Sauer said, and pay cuts would have just made matters worse. So the district’s biggest savings is in the area of substitute teaching. Compared to 2013-14, the district saved about $12,000 in substitutes during fall semester.

The reason: Teachers are able to get professional development on Fridays, training that has proven to be a scramble in a district that imposed eight furlough days during the recession. In the past, teachers received professional development during regular school days, and that meant Homedale needed to bring in subs.

Now, Fridays are devoted largely to training and teacher collaboration. “We have not had the time for that before,” Sauer said.

As a teacher, Uria appreciates the added training and planning time. On a personal level, she enjoys the flexibility of a Friday schedule that gives her a little more time to babysit a grandchild.

Sauer sees the value in training, and a work-life balance for teachers. In the long run, he hopes it will help Homedale break some the time-consuming cycle of recruiting new teachers. Already, the schedule has helped keep some teachers in town, and attract some new teachers.

“(It’s a) selling point,” he said.

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