With school funding flat or down and districts having to make tough — and creative — spending decisions, everything is on the table, from charging for sports to closing schools to lopping a whole day off the school week.
That’s right: In two Minnesota districts this fall, Tuesday is the new Monday and everything kids and teachers normally do in five days gets squeezed into four.
The MACCRAY school district, with about 700 students in the cities of Maynard, Clara City, and Raymond in west central Minnesota switched to a four-day schedule in 2008 and Ogilvie Public School district in east central Minnesota started its new schedule this fall. The idea is not entirely new. Some schools in New Mexico first cut a day out of their schedules during the 1970s oil crisis and schools in 17 states are now on a four-day schedule. Most are in rural communities and have fewer than 1,000 students. While some states require a minimum number of school days, Minnesota does not, but unusual schedules must be approved by the Department of Education.
Schools that have switched to a four-day week say they have found there are fewer absences, students spend more hours in the classroom each year, and test scores stay about the same — some even improve. According to MACCRAY Superintendent Greg Schmidt, the district saved more than 1.3 percent of its budget, or $85,000, by eliminating one day a week — $65,000 alone came off the bus contract — and would have had to cut electives and at least one teaching position if it had not.
Parents naturally wonder about childcare, sports and other extracurricular activities, and whether kids can really maintain their attention spans for the longer days. Schmidt says MACCRAY has run into very few problems. “We have so few negative comments, it’s amazing. For most people, change is change, and that’s hard.” On Mondays, the district offers a childcare course for high school students, who watch the younger students.
Ed Harris, superintendent of Ogilvie Public Schools, said there will actually be a lesser need for daycare on the four-day schedule. “We’re eliminating all our half days, whereas typically we have one or two of those a month when parents need to find daycare for kids for half a day. Basically it has confined daycare needs to Mondays and a lesser need for after school,” he said. Harris estimates the average student currently needs about 500 hours of childcare in the traditional arrangement and will need about 36 fewer in a four-day week.
To break up the day, MACCRAY students get breakfast, lunch, and recess breaks. Each building has two rooms dedicated to the Boost Up program where students can do 20–25 minutes of physical activity in the afternoon. As for sports, with some negotiation, MACCRAY has been able to work it out. “It’s been a little bit tricky,” Schmidt says. “The fall and winter went very well. And in the spring, we’re trying to make sure the afternoon schedule rotates so they don’t miss the same classes all the time,” Schmidt said. “There are 6 to 10 other teams at a track meet, and they’re not all going to adjust just because of us. Where it’s a contest with just one other school, we’ve been able to negotiate a middle ground as far as the starting time, and that works out pretty well.”
In Ogilvie’s secondary school, the last period is a resource period in which students can meet with teachers and do homework. “If students have an activity they have to leave early for, they would not be missing an academic class with regularity,” Harris explains.
Testing the waters
MACCRAY’s new schedule has generated plenty of interest from other districts around the state and around the country. “I presented with one of my board members at the Minnesota School Board Convention and at the Superintendent’s Convention last fall,” Schmidt says. “My high school principal spoke with a group of legislators and school leaders in Omaha. My elementary principal has gone to a school district to be part of a community meeting, and I went to a meeting down in Brewster. We’re just trying to help people as they request it. It keeps us busy.”
Some districts have considered the four-day option but have decided to stick with a five-day schedule. The Round Lake and Brewster, Glenville-Emmons, Windom, and Southwest Star Concept districts have mulled it over.
“I think school districts will have to look at any and every way to save a buck,” says John Cselovszki, superintendent for Round Lake and Brewster, which could have saved an estimated $45,000 with a four-day schedule. “That’s a big difference for us. That’s like a teacher for us.”
The Round Lake and Brewster board voted against the four-day week due to a lack of community support.
Superintendent Mark Roubinek of the Glenville-Emmons district said the response from parents and teachers was relatively positive, but the community at large opposed a change and the school board decided against changing the schedule, which would have saved an estimated $60,000. Other cuts were made instead, including combining required courses into one section — increasing class sizes — and eliminating some electives.
“I think we cut close to $40,000 there between the elementary and the high school concerning staff decisions. If we had gone to a four-day, I don’t think we would have had to do that,” Roubinek said. “The idea that there may not be any money coming down the road puts a real crimp on school districts because it’s hard to keep dealing with increasing costs when your main source of funding, the state, isn’t going to be increasing those things.”
Wayne Wormstadt, superintendent of the Windom Area School District, said the board did not feel their financial situation was critical enough to require such a drastic change. “It’s an option some schools have to look into,” Wormstadt said. The idea was brought up at a community meeting but the board decided against further consideration. Superintendent Becky Cselovszki of Southwest Star Concept said that district will also stay with a five-day schedule. “We held a series of three community meetings and the board felt that the community support was not there at this time,” Cselovszki said. They have decided to go with an operating levy increase to generate revenue.
Even so, the four-day option may not be gone for good. The Glenville-Emmons board will be paying attention to how things work out in MACCRAY and Ogilvie and may revisit the idea for the 2010–2011 school year. If Southwest Star Concept’s operating levy does not pass, the four-day option maybe reconsidered. As schools continue to struggle financially, the shorter week may become a more common solution throughout Minnesota.
Julie Sander is a Minneapolis freelance writer.