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How will four-day school weeks affect children’s learning?

Majority of districts in Southwest Colorado have made the switch to improve teacher retention
Leanna Spungen, a third-grade teacher at Needham Elementary School, works with students Aug. 30 during reading time in her class. Durango School District 9-R plans to stick with five-day weeks, even though a majority of school districts have gone to four-day weeks. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Several school districts in Southwest Colorado have switched to four-day schedules in an effort to retain teachers, but little is known about the impact it will have on children’s long-term cognitive abilities.

“The general feeling is that students do no worse on the four-day week than on the traditional schedule,” said Jeremy Meyer, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education. “If student performance is judged by satisfaction, then the results are very favorable.”

Bayfield, Ignacio, Mancos, Dolores and Montezuma-Cortez school districts have all moved to four-day schedules. Durango and Archuleta school districts are two major holdouts. Statewide, 124 school districts, or 69% of all districts in Colorado, have moved to four days.

Durango School District 9-R spokeswoman Karla Sluis said the district wants to create the best learning environment possible, and the five-day schedule does that. Going to a four-day week would put a strain on child care for most families, she said. Most parents work five days a week, and to give a child an extra day off would force parents to look for other child care options.

But other districts say the four-day week is going well, and they have found ways to help parents with child care on the fifth day.

Dolores and Montezuma-Cortez have superintendents serving their first full year with the school districts. Both superintendents said they are unsure what impact a four-day week will have on the learning environment, and say test scores over the next few years will provide a better indication.

According to state mandates, students in middle and high school must be in the classroom for a total of 1,080 hours a year. Elementary school students must complete 990 hours.

Leanna Spungen, a third-grade teacher at Needham Elementary School, works with students Asa Radding, 8, left, and Dominic Taylor, 8, on Aug. 30 during reading time in her class. School districts that have switched to four-day weeks are offering after-school programs, including on Fridays, that help parents with child care. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Reece Blincoe became the interim superintendent of the Dolores School District after the decision to move to a four-day week was made, he said. This will be the second year Dolores has had four-day weeks.

He acknowledged the shift from a five-day week to a four-day week isn’t being driven by something that is viewed as being academically advantageous.

“You know, if somebody says they did it for academic gains, I’m not sure that would be true,” Blincoe said.

Rather, the decision was geared toward improving teacher retention, a reoccurring theme among school districts that have made the change.

According to the Colorado’s Educator Shortage Survey Results conducted by the Colorado Department of Education, 7,000 teaching and special services provider positions needed to be hired in 2021. That accounts for 10% of teaching positions and 16% of special services provider positions in the state.

Of the 5,729 teaching positions, 440 remained unfilled for the school year and 1,128 were filled through a “shortage mechanism.” A shortage mechanism is defined by the Department of Education as hiring long-term substitutes, retired educators and alternative licensure-program candidates.

In core teaching subject areas, statewide shortages were greatest in these areas: special education, mathematics, science, world languages and early childhood education. Data for the 2022-23 school year has yet to be released.

Compensation played a role in Dolores School District’s decision to go to four-day weeks.

Leanna Spungen, a third-grade teacher at Needham Elementary School, works with students Aug. 30 during reading time in her class. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“They (teachers) are just working less hours for the same amount of pay,” Blincoe said. “I know this for a fact: when they (Dolores School District) went to the four-day week, they didn’t let anybody go backward in pay.”

Montezuma-Cortez School District Superintendent Tom Burris said the idea behind going to four-day weeks was to give teachers leeway for time off and extend their weekend.

“They’ve been very positive with the change,” he said. “They like the three-day weekend and don’t care about the longer day.”

Burris said he will be keeping an eye on PSAT, ACT and other test scores to decipher whether the four-day weeks have impacted classroom performance. But that will take time. Montezuma-Cortez School District started four-day weeks during the last half of the previous school year, he said, so there is little data so far to give an honest assessment.

Burris said he could not speak to parents’ response when the change was first made, but since becoming superintendent, parents have not shared negative reactions.

“I know the typical concern is, ‘My kids are off on Friday. What am I going to do with them?’ But I haven’t heard that in my short tenure back,” he said.

Leanna Spungen, a third-grade teacher at Needham Elementary School, works with students Abigale Fry, 8, and James Carrado, 8, on Aug. 30 during reading time in her class. A common theme among school districts that go to four-day weeks is trying to recruit and retain teachers, who prefer the shorter weeks. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Bill Hesford, assistant superintendent for Bayfield School District, said school days are slightly longer to ensure students meet their state-mandated hours in the classroom. This is Bayfield’s first year to try out a four-day schedule. It is too early in the school year to know if shorter weeks will have an adverse impact on students’ learning, Hesford said.

“The data that we uncovered in our research indicated that there is little difference in academic performance between students attending four days per week and students attending five days per week,” he said.

Hesford said the move was done to increase teacher recruitment and retention.

“We hope to increase the attractiveness of the district to staff and to be able to keep teachers working in Bayfield longer once we attract them to the Bayfield School District,” he said.

Helping parents cope

Superintendents of schools that have made the switch say parents had mixed feelings about it.

“A lot of parents were uneasy about how they would provide care for their students on Fridays,” Hesford said. “We also heard concerns about how the district could deliver the same level of service in four school days.”

Dolores has developed a way to offer child care on Fridays through what it calls “Friday Fun Days.”

“For half a day, we watch your kids and we try to provide fun and educational opportunities,” Blincoe said. An example of such an activity includes going to the Dolores River and speaking with a biologist about the river, he said.

Montezuma-Cortez offers a similar option through its Pinon Project.

Burris said the option is not mandatory and is mostly for elementary school students.

Dolores, Mancos and Montezuma-Cortez also aligned their schedules so high school students who want college credits can take classes at Pueblo Community College.

“We’ve aligned our calendars exactly because we’re working with PCC,” Blincoe said. “So we’ve started this program called the Friday Academy this year.”

Is a four-day week cheaper?

Hesford said Bayfield School District’s decision to go to four-day classes was not driven by finances.

Likewise, Blincoe said Dolores School District’s budget has not been impacted by the change in schedule.

Burris said Montezuma-Cortez School District had to increase salaries for workers in transportation and food services. Even though they’re not working five days a week, they still need five days worth of income to make ends meet, he said.

“With teachers, they’re on the same contract because they grant the same number of hours. But with food service and transportation, you’re actually cutting their time by 20%,” Burris said. “... With personnel, you have to raise their salary because you don’t want to hurt people’s livelihood.”

Leanna Spungen, a third-grade teacher at Needham Elementary School, works with students Aug. 30 during reading time in her class. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Bayfield School District is still trying to gauge what impact, good or bad, the four-day schedule is having on parents.

So far, Hesford said it hasn’t been an issue for athletes and clubs to practice or meet on a weekend day.

Blincoe and Burris said the four-day schedule has worked out well for sports such as football that play on Friday nights. It keeps students from leaving class early on Fridays to attend games. For sports that play on weekdays, like volleyball, students would have to leave class early regardless for away games.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

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