School Districts' Answer to Budget Woes: Less School

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Associated Press

School Districts' Answer to Budget Woes: Less School

4-day school weeks gain popularity across US

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FORT VALLEY, Ga. - During the school year, Mondays in this rural
Georgia community are for video games, trips to grandma's house and
hanging out at the neighborhood community center.

Don't bother
showing up for school. The doors are locked and the lights are off.

Peach County is one of more than 120 school districts across the
country where students attend school just four days a week, a
cost-saving tactic gaining popularity among cash-strapped districts
struggling to make ends meet. The 4,000-student district started shaving
a day off its weekly school calendar last year to help fill a $1
million budget shortfall.

It was that or lay off 39 teachers
the week before school started, said Superintendent Susan Clark.

"We're treading water," Clark said as she stood outside the
headquarters of her seven-school district. "There was nothing else for
us to do."

The results? Test scores went up.

So did
attendance - for both students and teachers. The district is spending
one-third of what it once did on substitute teachers, Clark said.

And the graduation rate likely will be more than 80 percent for the
first time in years, Clark said.

The four days that students
are in school are slightly longer and more crowded with classes and
activities. After school, students can get tutoring in subjects where
they're struggling.

On their off day, students who don't have
other options attend "Monday care" at area churches and the local Boys
& Girls Club, where tutors are also available to help with homework.
The programs generally cost a few dollars a day per student.

Experts say research is scant on the effect of a four-day school week on
student performance. In fact, there is mostly just anecdotal evidence
in reports on the trend with little scientific data to back up what many
districts say, said University of Southern Maine researcher Christine
Donis-Keller.

"The broadest conclusion you can draw is that it
doesn't hurt academics," said Donis-Keller, who is with the university's
Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation.

Many districts that have the shortened schedule say they've seen
students who are less tired and more focused, which has helped raise
test scores and attendance. But others say that not only did they not
save a substantial amount of money by being off an extra day, they also
saw students struggle because they weren't in class enough and didn't
have enough contact with teachers.

The school district in
Marlow, Okla., is switching back to a five-day week after administrators
decided students were not being served well by attending school only
four days. The 440-student district tried the shorter week the spring
semester this year to save $25,000 in operation costs.

"It was
harder on the teachers. We were asking the kids to move at a quicker
pace," said district Superintendent Bennie Newton. "We're hoping the
four-day week won't come into play next year."

The move by
Peach County in Georgia gets mixed reviews.

Parents like
Heather Bradshaw worry that their children are getting shortchanged on
time with teachers.

"I don't feel like they're having the
necessary time in the classroom," said Bradshaw, a single mother with a
fourth-grade son at one of the county's three elementary schools. "The
schedule has slowed him down."

Other parents prefer the shorter
schedule and don't mind the hassle of finding a babysitter one day a
week.

"It makes the children's weekend a little better, so they
get more rest," said LaKeisha Johnson, who sends her fourth-grade
daughter to the Boys & Girls Club on Mondays.

The trend of
four-day school weeks started in New Mexico during the oil crisis of the
1970s and has been popular in rural states where students have to
commute a long way. Other districts have used it as a way to try to fix
schools with a long history of poor student performance by shaking up
the schedule and giving children more time to study outside of school.

Georgia, Oklahoma and Maine have changed their laws in the last
couple of years to allow districts to count their school year by hours
rather than days, allowing for a four-day week if needed. Hawaii schools
were off every other Friday this year for schools to save money, giving
them the state with the shortest school year in the country.

From California to Minnesota to New York, districts - mostly small,
rural ones with less than 5,000 students - are following the trend,
hoping to rescue their bleeding budgets.

For Peach County,
the four-day week was enough of a success that the school district is
trying it again next year, Clark said. The move saves $400,000 annually
and is popular among teachers and students because they get extra rest,
she said

"Teachers tell me they are much more focused because
they've had time to prepare. They don't have kids sleeping in class on
Tuesday," she said. "Everything has taken on a laser-light focus."

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