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Fewer days, longer hours

Published (2/18/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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More Minnesota school districts facing budget deficits are considering a four-day school week to save on transportation, utility and energy costs. Eleven have already adopted that schedule, and House members have raised the topic casually in committee conversation.

Rep. Lyle Koenen (DFL-Clara City) doesn’t serve on a House education committee, but his children attend MACCRAY schools, on a four-day week since 2008. As a parent, he likes the schedule and said his high-school children’s grades have actually gone up a bit, though he can’t be sure it’s because of the schedule.

As a legislator, Koenen knows it doesn’t suit every community, nor does it address the underlying problem of inadequate school funding.

“It takes the problem and ratchets it down a little, but the pressure’s still on,” Koenen said.

Four-day weeks aren’t unprecedented, said Debi Brandt, a MACCRAY school board member. The west-central Minnesota district serves Maynard, Clara City and Raymond. Brandt said during the first round of discussions several years ago, people recalled going to school four days a week during the peak of the 1970s energy crisis.

Now MACCRAY saves about $143,000 that otherwise would have come from program cuts such as Spanish, business or industrial technology classes, said Superintendent Greg Schmidt. Absenteeism is down, and the district made Adequate Yearly Progress in every category this year, he added.

Nobody complains when they see her at the post office or in town, Brandt said. “In fact I have heard just the opposite – you better not go back to a five-day week because we love it.”

Districts must file an application to change to a four-day schedule with the Education Department, and renew every three years.

Assessing the impact

North Branch is still assessing the impact of its new schedule that began in September, said Superintendent Deb Henton, but so far district surveys show 87 percent of parents and 79 percent of teachers say the adjustment to four days has been easy, while 36 percent of students like it and think they’re getting better grades, with 51 percent neutral, saying their grades are not affected. Parents of younger children are more concerned about the toll a longer school day can take, but on balance the long weekend provides respite.

Donna Hubbard is a fan. “We can run errands, we can extend a vacation, we can do homework, we can lie around doing nothing,” said the North Branch parent of three, who runs a business from her home.

Day care availability, a concern in MACCRAY and elsewhere, has worked out. Brandt said grandparents and older students have stepped in to provide Monday child care, and longer school days mean more parents are home by the time their children get off the school bus.

“The people that like it really like it a lot,” Henton said. “The people that don’t like it really don’t like it.” Some still harbor misconceptions, such as the false belief there’s less instruction time, she added. “I am constantly reassuring people that the Education Department will not let you lose even a minute of instructional time.”

With a four-day week, each class day is longer. For example, North Branch Area Middle School students arrive at 7:25 a.m., school starts 15 minutes later, and students are dismissed at 3:30 p.m. On three-day weekends the heat is turned down, toilets aren’t flushed and buses don’t run. North Branch students who aren’t proficient can get help with reading and math on Mondays through targeted intervention programs at no cost to families. Other students can sign up for enrichment activities such as cooking or snowboarding.

Substitute teacher costs are lower since teachers can make personal appointments on the day off.

Rep. Bob Barrett (R-Shafer) says the measure of success is not whether people like the schedule, but if it enhances student achievement.

“If it’s a great idea, why wouldn’t all districts go to a four-day week?” Barrett said.

LeSueur-Henderson parents rejected a four-day proposal last year partly because of inconclusive research about its impact on student learning, plus commuter families’ concerns about day care logistics, said Superintendent Dave Johnson. “We had estimated $112,000 in savings. The community felt it wasn’t worth all the inconvenience and change.”

When is more just less with less?

Barrett said the state should be more selective about asset allocation, as a business would. He’d prefer to transfer resources from areas where money is not being used as effectively to districts like North Branch which get relatively low per-pupil aid but are unable to garner support for operating levies.

Last year’s failed referendum questions in the district would have funded the arts, teaching staff, electives and activities, Henton said, and now layoffs and program cuts are inevitable because there’s nothing else to cut. She’s using federal jobs money to lower the deficit to $1.1 million. An elementary building was demolished, saving $400,000. North Branch shares technology and staff with other districts through the St. Croix River Education District cooperative.

“When we look at the future all we see is declining enrollments and climbing deficits. We will be cutting tenured teachers this year,” Henton said.

Barrett applauds the district for doing more with less in difficult times, but said, “There is a minimum standard which every school district should expect from their state. When you go below that minimum, less becomes less.”

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