'Move to a four-day school week? It would reduce the time I spend working at night and on weekends'

5th January 2017 at 13:35
A four-day school week seems like the perfect solution to a multitude of financial and academic issues facing many of our schools, writes one charter school teacher

I teach in a charter school in Utah. Most charter schools that are featured in films are in inner cities, where charters appear primarily to provide an option to get out of gang-ridden district schools

However, in my corner of the world, families seem to choose charter schools in the hope of finding a more conservative education – not necessarily a "safer" one. 

Dress codes, school names and mascots are almost universally centered around Americana.  This means that charters in Utah have a unique challenge: how do they differentiate themselves not only from district schools, but from each other? 

My school, American Leadership Academy (ALA), is the oldest and most established of the charters in Utah County. True to form, it has the red, white and blue-dominated dress code. 

Our mascot is the eagle. Our status in the community is solidified enough that no one fears closure, and our enrollment is high. 

All the same, ALA has faced the same problems every school in the state of Utah faces.

'Trying something different'

Utah ranks 50th in education funding in the United States, and in order to address the need both to differentiate and economize, ALA has been considering changing to a four-day school week.

For many schools, the four-day week seems like the perfect solution to a multitude of problems – both financially and academically. 

Schools scrambling to save funds can save up to 2.5 per cent on operating costs and hourly employee salaries by cutting down to a four day week

Academically, schools that have adopted the four-day week have reported fewer absences, increased student and teacher morale and better test scores. 

One school district in Georgia even reported discipline issues going down almost 75 per cent after adopting the four-day week.

Although official studies on the direct impact of school schedule on reported results are few and in their infancy, many schools, like mine, have seen enough that they want to at least give it a whirl.

Personally, I find the concept of the "perfect school schedule" to be a red herring. In previous schools where I’ve worked, the bell schedule has been a topic of debate almost yearly. 

I tend to prefer longer class periods, but my theatrical background has trained me to adapt easily to different "show times", so arguing over length of classes has always seemed like a distraction to me in terms of whether or not my classes are successful.

'Let's disrupt the status quo'

I am, however, a fan of education change that is "disruptive" to the status quo. The possibility of a four-day week is intriguing to me. 

Currently, our school is in the final stages of getting the change approved. Initial meetings with the state school board have been positive and, barring any major disruptions, it's likely that next year we will proceed with the four-day week. 

School will start earlier than it has this year (8am instead of 8:45am), but will follow a similar schedule with breaks throughout the year.

Students will have every Friday off, though tutoring and practices or rehearsals may still be scheduled (they can't be any longer than they would normally be during the school week). 

Teachers will have every other Friday off, with the alternating Fridays being used for professional learning communities, training and time to work in classrooms.

Responses from staff have been mixed. 

The biggest concern expressed by teachers seems to be the increase in contract hours that results from a longer school day in addition to meetings every other week. 

There are other concerns among families, particularly those who rely on school to watch children while parents are at work. 

Others are worried about students who rely on school lunch to be fed

Those in favor, like myself, love the idea of longer weekends and are optimistic about impact on student emotional welfare. Teachers and administrators alike know that students who are emotionally healthy are more likely to perform well academically.

I'm less happy about the prospect of starting earlier, but I am hopeful that fewer days of getting up early will lessen the negative impact. 

The concern of a small increase in contract hours doesn't bother me – I'm already at school well after hours every day. I anticipate that having dedicated time on Friday to get grading and lesson planning done will reduce the amount of time I spend working at night and on weekends

The hope is that the schedule for next year will be finalized in the next month, so whether or not the four-day week plan happens at all, much less whether it is successful, is still to be determined. 

I do know one thing, though: I would rather try something new that has the potential to fail than stick with the status quo.

If public education is ever going to rise above its Industrial Revolution roots then schools will have to take a leap and try something different. The four-day week seems like a pretty soft risk to start with.

Joni Newman teaches at the American Leadership Academy, a charter school in Spanish Fork, Utah

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