Two Pennsylvania school districts weigh four-day week

Posted: May 05, 2011

Under pressure from high energy prices and shrinking funding, the idea of a four-day school week is getting a hard look as a creative way to save money and preserve academic programs.

No Pennsylvania school district now operates on a four-day calendar, but Coatesville in Chester County and a district near Pittsburgh are exploring it. To give students the same instruction time they have now, the day for Coatesville middle schools and the high school would be 45 minutes longer, and for elementary grades it would increase by 80 minutes.

Nationally, only about 125 districts out of nearly 14,000 - most in the West and South - have a four-day week.

Advocates for the switch cite as benefits extended weekends, more time each day in classes, lower energy bills with buildings closed and buses idled for an extra day, and savings on pay for noninstructional staffing.

The downside includes working parents' increased spending on child care, fatigue from longer days, and difficulties in scheduling sports and extracurriculars.

"This is not an easy undertaking," said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. "This is an indication of how far districts are willing to go, or at least to explore, in order to save money in these times."

When the Webster County School District in Kentucky switched to the four-day week in 2003-04, the change was outside most people's comfort zone, said Superintendent James Kemp.

"I don't think anybody would ever consider modifying the school week if they weren't forced to" by finances, he said. But now that parents and students have experienced the benefits, Kemp said, "they'd escort us out of town at gunpoint if we suggested going back."

For Coatesville, the change is one of the two "last resort" measures on a 40-item list of ways to close a $12 million budget gap, said superintendent Richard Como. The other is eliminating 53 more jobs.

Still, School Board President J. Neil Campbell said last week that he was "seriously considering it," if better alternatives cannot be found by the June 30 budget deadline.

Como said the change would save about $1.7 million a year.

Though the district teachers union has not taken a formal position on the idea, "I understand the need to be creative," president Mary Beth Guiseppe said in an interview. Deeper staffing cuts would be a much worse alternative, she said. The four-day week, she said, would not "negatively impact the education our students are getting."

Under a tentative district plan, the school week would be from Tuesday to Friday. Students would have 154 school days instead of 180.

Staff training days, Como said, would be held before school opens in the fall or on Mondays, so there would be fewer student days off during the school year.

After-school sports and other to extracurriculars would start later and end later. The district could look into providing day care on Mondays if there was a demand for it, he said.

Students interviewed last week at Coatesville Area Senior High School said they were open to the idea, especially if it led to fewer staff cuts.

"I'd rather cut an extra day than lose teachers or some of our special classes," said Genevieve Kraidman, a junior and member of the Coatesville band.

Jackson Davis, a junior and member of the cross-country team, said the "practice schedule might be affected with longer days. But I don't think it would be that big of a deal."

One student said he would make more money. "I would use that extra day to work," said Stephen Brown, a junior. It "would help me earn a lot more to save up for college."

Though there's been no stampede toward the four-day week nationally, many districts that tried it like it, though some have gone back to five days.

The 700-student Maccray School District in Clara City, Minn., was the first in that state to switch to four days, in fall 2008.

Gary Sims, principal of the district's grades 7-12 school, said one school board member initially said the idea was "the stupidest thing he had ever heard of." But the change has brought few complaints, no academic drop-off, and enough savings to pay the salaries of several teachers.

Child care on the off day was not a big issue, though it was feared it would be, Sims said. "If you give parents a calendar in advance, with the days off marked on it, they will adjust; they will find a way," he said.

In elementary school, Sims said, the longer day was made easier by scheduling breakfast and breaks. Overall, the switch has "been very successful and very well accepted," he said.

National studies, though limited, have found that the effects on academics of the four-day week are largely neutral or positive, said Christine Donis-Keller of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine.

One interesting finding, she said: student and teacher attendance was higher.

Though the four-day week is still considered "outside the box" and a hard sell in many districts, Donis-Keller said, increasingly, "when schools are putting together their budgets, it becomes a hot topic."


Contact staff writer Dan Hardy

at 215-854-2612 or at dhardy@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Gustavo Solis contributed to this article.

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