Higher gas prices are forcing many school districts to take a fresh approach to back-to-school this year. One option is the four-day-a-week model.
The concept is not new for at least 100 districts nationwide. Jenkins Independent Schools in western Kentucky began its four-day schedule four years ago.
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The mining town sits on the Kentucky-Virginia border. And while it may be more rural and laid-back than other places, time is still a precious commodity here. That's why Angie Hardin is happy to send her two children off for seven and a half hour school days each morning. Their trade-off is a 3-day weekend.
Hardin says, "Me and my kids love it because they get to spend time with their grandparents on Mondays when they're out of school and time with my sister."
Jenkins began the new schedule four years ago. The school administration's goal was to improve classroom instruction by consolidating planning time for teachers. The school now sets aside Mondays specifically for their planning.
"This gives our teachers the opportunity to plan together collaboratively, focus on student learning and that's the primary motive behind this," Administrator Harvey Tackett explains.
Rising Fuel Costs
For many school districts across the country, rising fuel costs are the big reason they're even considering the four-day week.
The National School Boards Assocation NSBA is well aware of the trend.
"They're being driven by the cost of gasoline and for many districts, these fuel costs are really tough," says Anne Bryant, executive director of the NSBA. "We have not seen a spike in the number going to four-day school weeks but we have seen a spike in the number considering it."
Fuel prices are nearly double what school districts paid two years ago. In places like Des Moines, Iowa, more than a million dollars will be spent on fuel this year. That makes taking buses off the road another day a week very attractive for many schools.
The potential impact is huge. The American Bus Council says 26 million children ride 480,000 buses each day. Every year, schools buy more than 800 million gallons of diesel fuel.
The four-day model has its roots in the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Today, the majority of the 17 states with four-day districts remain west of the Mississippi. Colorado has 57 districts. New Mexico has 21. And most of the districts are rural.
In Jenkins, the schedule is now somewhat blended. Students go to class for five days in September and also in March to help them get ready for spring testing. But the seven and a half hour day remains throughout the year.
Teachers say the four-day weeks improve students' morale.
"They're eager to come. When you only get four days, they're actually wanting to come to school," Fourth-grade teacher Scott Guthrie explains.
Teachers say the schedule boosts their morale as well.
"You have an entire day without the stress of being ready for the kids and making sure you're on time because we're so bell-to-bell--every minute counts," Math teacher Hannah Harrison says.
Parents told CBN News that four days is better for their kids in many ways.
"They have Mondays to prepare for bigger projects," says mom Laura Revis. "And they have more time to get ready for stuff like that."
"I love the four-day week," says mom Ellen Robinson. "Especially if they have doctors' appointments you can schedule them on Monday. It cuts down on absenteeism and they get a break."
Student attendance in Jenkins went up by eight-tenths of a percent the first year - which meant $40,000 more in state funding. Teacher sub days went down by 8 percent. Total savings are almost $85,000 a year. That's more than 2 percent of its overall budget.
One unexpected result is that test scores have stayed the same. That's one of the biggest questions about the four-day week - its impact on student learning. So far, no research exists.
"There are anecdotal stories about some things that have happened with four-day school weeks," says Bryant. "And there are some concerns that school boards have about what impact this will have on struggling students."
Daycare is another potential obstacle. What happens to kids on the fifth day? Jenkins developed an initial plan that worked well.
"We developed a plan with 21st Century, our after-school program" says Tackett. "We were able to work with them and they were able to provide workers to go out and we also partnered with two churches."
For many urban districts, the childcare issue alone may stop any serious consideration of a four-day plan. It's also tougher to develop community consensus in bigger cities. But for smaller-sized districts, now may be the time - at least to think about it.
"It's not for everybody," says Tackett. "It will not be for everybody. But I really believe a school district in this day and time potentially needs to look at it."
It's too soon to tell whether looking at the four-day week is just a knee-jerk reaction to gas prices or the beginning of a trend. But with high prices expected to stay, many communities find they must consider new and creative ways to cut costs.
*Originally broadcast September 24, 2008/