Four-day school week draws fans
More small districts can choose to change schedules, which some say will save on buses, utilities and lunches.

By Jim Sanders -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 2:15 am PST Saturday, December 25, 2004

Three-day weekends are nothing special for students in two California school districts - they're never more than a few days away.

Students work four days, then rest three, taking Fridays off.

The extra time at home is used to sleep in, shop, attend medical or dental appointments, catch up on chores, complete homework, or just have fun with family and friends.

"I usually just relax and be grateful," said Jon Knight, 16.

"Bike ride," said Fiona Buzzard, 7.

Their Pacific Valley School in Monterey County and Leggett Valley Unified School District in Mendocino County are the only California public school systems currently offering four-day schedules.

But two laws effective Jan. 1 allow seven other districts to consider such a switch.

School days are exceptionally long in such modified schedules, typically an extra hour or more, but the payback can be sweet.

"I think once teachers try a four-day week, they would have a tough time going to five days," said Brad Bailey, principal of Pacific Valley, which is located at Big Sur and has 22 students in kindergarten through high school.

"I get hundreds of applications from people who want to work here," he said.

About a dozen states are experimenting with four-day schedules or have passed bills authorizing their use, according to the National School Boards Association.

New legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gives similar authority to districts in Death Valley and Marysville, and to five in San Diego County - Borrego Springs, Warner, Jamul-Dulzura and the Julian elementary and high school districts.

No major opposition surfaced during legislative hearings.

None of the seven districts has committed to switching to a four-day schedule, although several are studying the possibilities.

Marysville has decided not to exercise its four-day option.

Students in an honors English class at Marysville High School pushed for a four-day week at two district schools, but trustees ordered that no jobs be eliminated or salaries cut to accommodate such a change.

"We felt it had enough educational value to consider, but logistically, it just became too complicated to really get done," said Marysville Superintendent Marc Liebman.

California lawmakers rejected proposals to grant blanket authorization to all small districts. They also ordered that four-day schedules be revoked at any campus where student test scores fail to meet state goals.

For tiny communities with high costs to operate schools, four-day weeks can provide significant savings by eliminating one day a week in which lunches must be served, buildings heated, classrooms swept and students bused to school.

The jury is still out on the academic impact of four-day weeks, but supporters claim that having an extra day off improves morale, increases attendance, lessens demand for substitute teachers, leaves Friday open for school sports events, and gives teenagers more time to manage part-time employment.

"Having the extra day off gives me some planning time," said Gail Chambers, who teaches kindergarten through second grade at Pacific Valley. "I can plan special projects and things like that."

Some education experts are wary of four-day weeks, however, noting that fewer days can reduce reinforcement of learned concepts and make it harder to offer elective classes, while exceptionally long school days can affect attention spans, comprehension and enthusiasm.

On a typical school day, a student at Pacific Valley might spend two or three hours riding to and from school, nearly eight hours on campus, then be faced with completing an hour or two of homework each night before going to bed.

Every child - even kindergartners - attends school from 8:15 a.m. until 3:45 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The only kindergartner currently enrolled does nearly all his academic work in the morning.

"At the junior high and elementary levels, you could get some fatigue by the end of the day," said Kevin Gordon, who has served as an administrator for the California School Boards Association and the California Association of School Business Officials.

"There's a real question about how much learning would be going on," Gordon said. "But if school districts decide this is something they favor, if they come to the conclusion that it works in their community, state laws should not prevent them from trying it."

Bruce Fuller, of Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonprofit educational think tank, said teacher creativity may have more impact upon learning than the length of each school day.

"I think one question is whether during these four days, kids will get a mix of activities - inside and outside class - that are really a stimulating mix of learning opportunities," Fuller said.

At Pacific Valley, four-day weeks were launched about 15 years ago in response to extraordinary circumstances: Many families faced a four-hour, round-trip drive to reach a big city, so children were pulled out of school all day to attend dental or doctor appointments.

"They need that one extra day a week to take care of personal things," Bailey said.

Students and staff at Pacific Valley School generally support the four-day schedule. Recognizing the possibility of academic fatigue, the school reserves its last period for physical education.

"It's less days of school, so it's worth a little extra time each day, I guess," said Knight.

Alison Lawrence-Toombs, 13, leaves home for school at 6:55 a.m. and returns after 5 p.m. She shrugs when asked if the long days tire her out.

"Sometimes, but usually no," she said.

Parent Sula Nichols, who works at home, said the four-day week provides her children with a better balance between home and school.

"I love it," Nichols said. "I'm able to spend extra time with the children. It also allows us to take trips which we otherwise would not."

Pacific Valley performed slightly above California's academic targets in 2002-2003 and slightly below them in 2003-2004. Enrollment is so small that scores can fluctuate significantly from year to year.

Education experts do not expect four-day schedules ever to become the norm statewide, primarily because working parents could find it difficult to provide extra child care and communities could be concerned about the potential for increased loitering.

State law prohibits any district from switching to a four-day schedule if unions representing their employees object.

"I don't see it as a huge groundswell," said David Walrath, executive director of the state's Small School Districts' Association.

Teri Burns, a former administrator in the state education department, said four-day weeks are not for everyone but that innovation, creativity and new ways of providing instruction should not be dismissed out of hand.

Increasing the number of four-day campuses could provide more tangible data about the effectiveness of such schedules, Burns said.

"If (test) scores continue to grow and this is a cost-effective way to do business, then maybe we should be doing more of it," she said.