LIKE good principals everywhere, Janet Liddle tries to keep up on the activities of every one of the 197 students at Granby Elementary School in Colorado, in the United States. From Monday through Thursday that’s fairly easy, but Fridays are tough. “Well, about half of them will be on the ski slopes on a Friday,’’ Liddle says. “A bunch might be at a concert, and some of them just take off somewhere with their parents.’’
The student body disperses every Friday because Granby Elementary, on a snowy plateau at the headwaters of the Colorado River, has a four-day school week. With the economic downturn and stiff new limits on state and federal education budgets, other districts, particularly in the rural West, are following suit, shutting down one day a week to cut costs.
More than 100 school districts in seven states – Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Arkansas and Louisiana – are using the four-day week, according to the National School Boards Association. Districts in an additional half-dozen states are considering the plan for this year, although some would require a change in state law to make the shift.
“You get an immediate 20% cut in your food services budget, 20% in transportation and some savings in energy and custodial costs,’’ said Robb Rankin, superintendent of the East Grand School District, which operates Granby Elementary and four other schools on the four-day plan. East Grand is more experienced with the four-day plan than most: It started the compacted schedule in 1982, after Colorado rewrote its annual educational requirements in response to the energy crisis of the late 1970s.
“We’ve also had improvement in attendance,’’ Rankin said, mainly because parents schedule the dentist or the eye exam on Friday instead of taking students out of school. “That’s pretty important in a mountain district like this one, because some of the kids have to make a four-hour round trip to Denver to see the orthodontist. We also schedule our teacher training and parent-teacher conferences on Fridays so they don’t take away a school day.’’
The tradeoff is that students in the four-day system have to go to school 7.5 hours per day to get the same amount of instruction that the standard five-day, six-hour schedule provides. That means even six-year-old first-graders have to be in class from 8.15am to 4.15pm each day. “We always schedule art, music or PE as the last hour of the day,’’ Liddle said, “because the younger students do get tired.’’
The school day is even longer for older students involved in sports, drama and the like. “I’m exhausted when I get home,’’ said Allie Bujanovich, a 17-year-old junior at Granby’s Middle Park High School. “When we were doing play practice, I was getting home at 7.30, 8 o’clock at night, and still had to get dinner and do my homework.’’
Still, Bujanovich said she would “stage a revolution’’ if the district tried to go back to a five-day schedule: “That would really mess with my snowboarding.’’
All students in East Grand schools receive free lift tickets every Friday from the area’s two major ski resorts, Winter Park and SolVista. District officials estimate that half the student body will be on the slopes on an average Friday between October and April. This may explain why Middle Park High’s ski teams have won several state championships.
Because the four-day schedule has been adopted mainly in small, rural school districts, there are no large-scale studies yet of the educational impact of the shortened week. But state officials in Colorado, with 47 districts on the four-day system, said there is no indication that learning has suffered.
“We don’t have a systematic comparison of student performance,’’ said Gary Sibigtroth, the state’s assistant commissioner of education. “But we are seeing the same improvement on standardised tests in the four-day schools that we have had in the traditional schools. This system has been extremely popular with parents; about 80% say they like the four-day plan. It would not be if there were any sign that education was suffering.’’
Last month, Colorado governor Bill Owens issued a report card on each of the state’s public schools. The results showed no difference in student achievement between four-day and five-day systems, the state said.
The Custer School District in South Dakota, which switched to the four-day week in 1995, has recorded small gains in annual achievement tests since the shift, but officials said they did not know if that was related to the new schedule.
Although decisions about school schedules across the United States are generally left to local boards, every state has a minimum school-year requirement, generally expressed in days. A common standard is 180 days of school per year. That makes the four-day schedule impossible for districts that want to retain the 12-week summer vacation.
But Colorado and a half-dozen other states have changed their laws to express the minimum annual requirement in hours rather than days.
In Colorado, secondary school students must have 1,080 hours of instructional time, and elementary students 990 hours. Those requirements can be met on a four-day schedule with longer school days.
Even boosters of the four-day plan in rural districts like this one do not advocate the system for everybody. “It would be tough to make this work in a big-city district,’’ said Sibigtroth, the state administrator. “There would probably be a lot of kids spending their Fridays hanging out on the street.
“But in these country towns, if a kid suddenly shows up on the street, phone calls will be made. People watch out for their neighbours. A Friday off is just an easier thing to manage in a rural district.’’ – LAT-WP
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