Until recently, only rural districts hoping to save money on busing geographically spread-out students had cut the school week down to four days. But now, while some districts are leaning toward year-round schedules, some are actually shortening the week as budgets continue to drop and state officials allow scheduling flexibility.
“Over time, more states have moved from requiring a certain number of school days to requiring a certain number of hours,” says Kathy Christie, chief of staff at the Education Commission of the States. This allows more districts to add 60 to 90 minutes to the end of each day during a four-day week to make up for the time off.
As of 2009, there were 120 districts in 21 states operating on a four-day school week, according to a report from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation & Education Policy. These districts are primarily in rural areas in Western states, such as Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming. Schools usually drop Monday or Friday classes, the report found.
It is not known how many there are today, Christie says, but the number appears to be increasing. In Idaho, at least 38 districts and nine charter schools will make the switch this year, according to the state education department. A 2011 Washington Post survey found that nearly 300 schools nationwide were on a four-day schedule.
The MACCRAY School System, serving the Minnesota towns of Clara City, Maynard, and Raymond, is now on its fifth year of a four-day schedule. There are three schools in the district of about 700 students, spread over 25 miles.
“It was a last resort—we’d faced major cuts, and the only thing left was to eliminate programs. We didn’t want to lose kids,” says Gary Sims, principal of MACCRAY Senior High School. “It was drastic measures for drastic times, but it was the best thing we’ve ever done.”
The first year, MACCRAY saved about $188,000 on transportation, utilities, and food services, Sims says. And school officials have seen “slightly better” attendance rates and state test performance since making the change, he adds. The high school has reached state Adequate Yearly Progress measures since the second year on this schedule.
However, most schools that switch to this schedule do not end up saving a significant amount, Christie says. And more in-depth research is needed on its impact on attendance and achievement.
“It’s not a silver bullet for schools that need improvement,” Christie says. “It’s a fairly simple structural change, which can be beneficial, but not if it doesn’t impact curriculum and instruction.”
Parents, teachers, and communities often support the four-day week, survey research has found.
“The parents of the schools that have changed to a four-day school week overwhelmingly like the change because it allows more time with their children,” states a 2011 report from the Montana Office of Public Instruction. Only three out of the 31 Montana districts that moved to a four-day week said some parents were still struggling with child care.
“There would be an uprising if we went back to a five-day week,” Sims adds.
Parents have been satisfied with the arrangement, as they can take their children to appointments on the Monday off, and arrange for child care in advance. “If parents know when they will need a babysitter, they’ll get one,” Sims says.