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Schools consider four-day weeks

Districts facing budget cuts nationwide are contemplating the measure. It's an appealing alternative to cutting staff or programs, but it can create child-care problems for parents.

May 04, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

DENVER — Facing deep funding cuts during the economic downturn, increasing numbers of school districts nationwide are contemplating trimming the traditional school week to four days to save money.

A four-day week has long been confined to a few small rural districts looking to save on fuel costs. Indeed, many of the districts thinking of shaving a day off their weekly calendar have small enrollments -- such as the 940-student district in Bisbee, Ariz.

But some districts contemplating the move serve suburban or urban areas. The idea is being floated in South Florida's Broward County, the nation's fifth-largest school system.

A recent University of Washington study found that states are cutting 18% of their education spending over the next three years, eliminating as many as 574,000 jobs.

"When everything's lean and states have no money and are cutting budgets to schools, it's an easy way to save money without cutting staff," said Gary Spiker, superintendent of the tiny Ash Fork School District in northern Arizona, which has had a four-day week since the 1980s.

Analysts say only about 100 of the nation's 15,000 districts operate on a four-day schedule. Eighteen states, including California, allow districts to choose a four-day week, and bills have been introduced in six states this year to permit it.

California's Department of Education does not track the number of districts on a four-day week. The state permits districts to shorten their week with specific legislative permission. This year, Alpaugh Unified School District in Tulare County is seeking that authority. And last month, Potter Valley Unified School District in Mendocino County shifted its high school to a four-day schedule.

Typically, districts that hold classes four days a week extend school hours 60 to 90 minutes per day. Education experts say there are no definitive data showing whether a four-day week benefits or harms students.

Some educators worry that young children will lose focus with a school day that can run from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. But the most common concern is voiced by parents who may have to scramble for an extra full day of child care.

"For parents, the issue is if Johnny's not in school on Monday or Friday, where is he going to be?" said Marc Egan of the National School Boards Assn.

Accordingly, large school districts approach the issue cautiously. In Douglas County, home to a ring of affluent suburbs southwest of Denver and Colorado's third-largest district, officials raised the idea of a four-day week during the district's budget process in January. The district was soon swamped with calls from angry and concerned parents.

"It was surprising to see how much attention we got for even uttering those words," spokeswoman Whei Wing said. "It is a big undertaking, and we want to make sure we have time to research the pluses and minuses."

The district can't rule out the concept because it has already had to cut 10% of its budget after local bond issues failed to pass in November. Meanwhile, it is bracing for a large funding cut from the state, which is wrestling with a $600-million deficit.

The biggest share of state budgets is education spending, and with states facing a combined $350-billion shortfall over the next three years, districts across the nation are seeing their budgets slashed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Bisbee, 93 miles southeast of Tucson, Supt. Gail Covington assumed her post last summer and surveyed the damage. The district had no guidance counselor or advanced-placement courses in its one high school, and libraries in two other schools had been shuttered. Covington suggested a four-day week.

"In tough economic times, we just can't keep doing things the way we have," she said.

Her school board unanimously approved, and Bisbee will switch to the new calendar in August. But parents are worried.

Adel Lewis, who has three children in the district, says she's spoken with parents who are trying to transfer their children to neighboring, five-day districts. Her 8-year-old will spend Fridays with her grandmother. The school board is hoping money from the federal stimulus package will fund new day care slots, but Lewis is skeptical.

"It is a big leap and it is kind of scary," Lewis said.

Conversely, Cathy Hobbs can't imagine her children spending five days in school. She lives in the East Grand School District in the mountains of northern Colorado, which switched to a four-day schedule in 1982. Hobbs and her husband run a log-home-building business and were able to rearrange their schedule to provide child care.

In their recreation-heavy community -- just south of Rocky Mountain National Park -- the Hobbses didn't have to worry about their children staying idle on Fridays. Local towns have programs to take youths to ski resorts, and Hobbs' two daughters learned to ski and snowboard during their days off.

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