Considering a 4-day school week

/ 18 April 2012 / jennifer

Pioneer Press Editorial, April 18, 2012 –

As a society, we expect government leaders facing budget challenges to innovate and stop doing things as they’ve always been done, but we don’t always cotton to the results.

For many families in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district, a proposed school schedule with every other Monday off sounds like a calendar nightmare. Others wonder whether a slightly longer school day on a four-day schedule really ads up to more instructional time. They’ll have their say at a series of three community meetings through May 1.

The proposal would save millions over the next three years and would take advantage of a recent legislative change that mandates the number of hours students must be in class, rather than the number of days, the Pioneer Press’ Christopher Magan reported.

While student instructional time would not decrease under the proposal, the district would save, for example, on transportation, food service, utility and custodial costs.

District leaders are faced with a combination of flat revenue and declining enrollment as they seek to offset growing operational costs as the result of inflation, Magan reported. Projections show Burnsville may need to cut as much as $5 million in each of the next three years to maintain the district’s roughly $107 million annual budget.

The proposed budget would allow the district to implement free, full-day kindergarten and would keep elementary class sizes the same, at about 27 students. Junior-high and high-school class sizes would increase to 35 students, Magan reported.

Some perspective on shorter school weeks comes from Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, who told us that about a dozen Minnesota school districts have moved to modified calendars. Cost-saving is the driving force.

There is concern, he said, and “a lot of questions,” primarily about child care for families in which both parents work, and for single parents.

Once the change is implemented, however, parents “become very satisfied,” and wouldn’t want to revert to the former schedule, he said. Staff members, too, like the compressed school week.

We also spoke with Deb Henton, superintendent at North Branch Area Public Schools, which implemented a four-day school week in 2010. Students have most Mondays off throughout the school year, and a school day that’s about 50 minutes longer than previously.

“Parents always find a way to take care of their kids,” Henton said. Dealing with day care concerns is a burden, but – once it’s resolved – families like the four-day week and longer weekends. “But that’s not to say there aren’t detractors,” she said.

We asked about impact on student achievement: It’s going up in the North Branch schools, but that’s attributed to the many improvement measures the district has in place, Henton said, noting that the limited number of studies on the topic suggest that four-day schedules neither help nor hurt student achievement.

Overall, Henton said, a challenge in the transition is making clear that the change is not a loss of instructional time.

As the discussion continues, local districts will weigh trade-offs. Budget balancing – along with the re-examination of priorities it requires – is virtuous work.