Some districts see benefits in four-day weeks

Joe Nicklay
Joe Nicklay is principal of William Kelley school in Silver Bay, Minn., which is part of the Lake Superior district. The district is in its first year on the four-day week.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The 10 school districts in Minnesota on the four-day week drew extra attention during campaign for governor this year.

Democratic nominee Mark Dayton, who leads the vote count ahead of an expected recount, repeatedly singled out the four-day week as a negative effect of tight state education budgets.

School officials agree their budgets forced them to the four-day week, but some defenders also say there are aspects of the new schedule that could be a model for other districts.

In the north shore town of Silver Bay, the William Kelley School is in its first year of a four-day schedule. Students go to school about 45 minutes longer Mondays through Thursdays and are off on Fridays.

Leaders in the Lake Superior district say savings from things like heating, energy, and hourly pay helped preserve teaching jobs, keep a full lineup of electives in place, and buy three new buses.

"Five days is really good for kids, but it's not so good if you don't have good buses and you don't have money to buy books," said Principal Joe Nicklay. "You can strip it down to the bare bones and have five days, but it's a pretty ugly education."

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Leaders in Lake Superior and the nine other districts on the four-day week all cited dire budgets for making the move. (Those nine are A.C.G.C., Blackduck, Clearbrook-Gonvick, MACCRAY, North Branch, Ogilvie, Onamia, Pelican Rapids and Warroad.) They note state funding has stayed flat while costs for things like salaries and health insurance keep rising.

This fall, Dayton repeatedly listed the effects that flat funding has had on school districts.

"You have overcrowded classrooms, more four-day school weeks, and the unfairness that if a school referendum is approved, the children are spared further pain, and if it's disapproved somewhere else, the children suffer," he said.

Dayton's education plan further singles out four-day weeks with the promise that he'll end them as governor.

Beth Schwarz
Beth Schwarz is superintendent of the Cook County school district in Grand Marais. Schwarz and her staff studied the four-day week for two years. Though the school board voted to drop the move at this time, Schwarz says she remains a supporter of the idea.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

School officials say Dayton is right to include four-day weeks in the context of budgets. But some defenders of the shorter schedule wonder if his portrayal will make people think four-day weeks are all bad.

Beth Schwarz, superintendent of the Cook County district in Grand Marais, is convinced that they are not. Her staff studied the four-day week for two years. The School Board later voted to drop the idea, at least for now, but Schwarz remains a supporter.

She said that from an educational standpoint there's nothing inherently better about five days than four.

"The conversation on four-day weeks is being pushed by budgetary issues, however I think it's an example also of how districts have been embedded in doing the same thing over and over and over again," Schwarz said. "And I would say it's not meeting the needs of all our children."

Districts that switched to a four-day schedule all kept the same number of instructional classroom hours in place by lengthening the other days. Some even added time.

Schwarz says there's no indication test scores suffer.

The MACCRAY district in central Minnesota is in year three of the four-day week. A 14-point jump this year in the percentage of kids proficient in math now has MACCRAY exceeding the state average.

Schwarz also said the day off allows for more staff development that helps teachers polish their craft. She said it's not the perfect solution but could be a stepping stone to a new structure that better fits today's children.

In Silver Bay, sports teams use Fridays off to travel to away games so athletes won't miss as much class. Principal Joe Nicklay said his school made changes it probably wouldn't have otherwise. The process forces schools to rethink everything -- from bell schedules to staff development.

Nicklay said there's no guarantee the school will want to return to five days when its current three-year approval is up.

"We've talked to some other districts and their parents have said they don't want to go back," he said. "They like it. Once they've got it figured out, they really enjoy it."

That's not to say there aren't drawbacks. Nicklay said community support is crucial to make it work. Business owners in other four-day towns have reported fewer customers on the days off. Parents have to find child care for that extra day.

Four-day weeks probably wouldn't work in large districts with high poverty, where school for many of those children is also where they get a majority of their food.

But in Silver Bay at least, Nicklay said enrollment is up, and he's heard mostly positive comments from parents.