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Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014

Area school leaders reflect on 4-day school week option

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Some Iowa school officials are discussing a move to shorten the school week to four days in order to reduce costs - a strategy that is already being employed by some districts in 17 states.

Not everyone is sold on the idea of moving to longer days, four days a week.

"It already seems like we don't have enough time to teach the basics in five days, and now they are talking about doing it in four," says Bev Mach, principal at St. Mary's in Storm Lake. "I would like to know who came up with this and whether they considered the input of educators."

Mach suggests that longer days would be too much for younger students, who would become too tired to study effectively.

"I am very adamant about this - I don't think it is a good idea," adds Dan Frazier, Supperintendent at Sioux Central.

"Ours is a commuter district. Our parents need to know where their children are five days a week. Also, students often have a limit to their attention span. Keeping them in school longer hours each day, past the limits of their attention, doesn't solve anything. Research tells us that students learn best in small chunks."

Frazier would rather see a return to discussion of year-around schooling as an option.

"I don't think we are ready in rural northwest Iowa just yet, but someday the United States needs to embrace year-around school to compete in the global marketplace. I would advocate for a five-quarter system where sudents could choose their four quarters to attend. They could still take a summer period off, or do it another time of year, or choose to go all five in high school and graduate a year early."

Frazier noted that while the discussion of four-day school weeks seems rather sudden in Iowa, it's nothing new.

"This has been around a while. There were schools in Nebraska that resorted to this way back in the time of the oil embargoes of the late 1970s."

Alta Superintendent Fred Maharry said he has "some real concerns" over the proposal.

"We should be concerned about the effect this could have on our students as they try to learn reading and math. I think they need that fifth day.

"Would a four day week be more attractive to districts in some ways? Yes. But I don't think it is better for the kids, and that should be what drives us."

Others see some possible merit in the plan.

"From December into February, if we could shave a day out of the week during the time it is most expensive to heat buildings and run buses, it might well be worth looking at," says Dave Kwikkel, superintendent of Schaller-Crestland.

Superintendents of the area AEA schools will be meeting Wednesday, and Kwikkel hopes they can take a poll on their thoughts on the issue.

"In a strange way, it might have some merit, although I don't know all of the potential consequences yet. I'm not sure we could handle it all school year, but possibly for a couple of months. Of course, we might have to give kids another snack, and more breaks - it could get to be a long day for kids."

The issue came to a head in the region last week as officials in the Southeast Webster-Grand district, a part of the local AEA area, discussed the option. Others are expected to follow.

"I just think it would be too much for kids to stay focused long enough," Liz Henning, a mother of two in the SWG school district, told the Des Moines Register. "I think five days is better."

"Being a rural district, we basically bus in 70 percent of our kids, so transportation is a big expense for us," said Mike Jorgenson, superintendent of Southeast Webster-Grand. "Any time that we can shave 20 percent of our expenses in one of our larger expenditure categories, we have to take a look at it."

While no formal study has been done in the U.S. on the effects of a shorter school week, officials in Arizona and Colorado say the shorter week has resulted in fewer absences by students and teachers. They also suggest it can be a good tool to recruit teachers.

Districts in Arizona say that change hasn't affected student achievement, and that some districts have used the day off to offer tutoring students or teacher training.

St. Mary's principal Mach wonders where the savings come in, then. "You still have to pay staff, and you still have to heat the building. Sure, you save one day's bus route. But if you have to bring in tutors on the day off, I'm not sure I see any huge savings."

Heather Chikoore, a policy specialist with the National Conference of Legislatures, said state law gives districts the freedom to choose.

According to the Southern Regional Education Association in Atlanta, schools in six states have moved to a four-day schedule in the past five years.

Officials with the Van Buren County school district say they will ask state education officials for a waiver to the required school calendar, which says students should be in school at least 51⁄2 hours a day and 180 days a year.

Superintendent Karen Stinson said money isn't the only reason. She said it would also allow students an extra day during the week to participate in job shadow programs, earn community college credit and other opportunities they may not have now.

Judy Jeffrey, director of the state education department, told the Register that she's not sold on the four-day schedule.

"There's just a lot of pros and cons to it," she said. "I think people have to think through all the implications, no just 'I need to save money on transportation."

Gov. Chet Culver also isn't sure about the idea, said spokesman Troy Price.

Price said Culver would want to "see evidence that it has maintained or improved educational excellence while actually saving energy costs."

"This can't be a hasty decision," Mach says. "For years we talked about year-around school, and now we are talking about going the other direction with four-day school weeks.

"I worry about the little ones."



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