- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - More than 100 schools in Montana use a four-day school week. More than 5,000 students start the day earlier and end later. Every weekend is a three-day weekend.

The model is used exclusively by small, rural schools. Reasons for switching vary - early on, schools frequently cited potential cost savings. Others pitched improved attendance. More recently, some schools have used a four-day week to stand out in an attempt to attract more students and teachers.

While districts that switched say student performance has typically held steady or improved, there’s little hard data on how a four-day week affects academics. Some studies show dips. Others, like a recent study co-authored by a Montana State University professor, show improvement.

The model has been used by several other states - Idaho has more than 25,000 students in schools using a four-day week.

Anecdotally, many schools say four-day weeks have been a rousing success. But the only comprehensive analysis of performance by Montana students shows a troubling trend, The Billings Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/1PMSCnH).

Research conducted by Sunburst Schools Superintendent Tim Tharp for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Montana shows an initial improvement or holding steady for the first few years when schools switch to a four-day week. But after that, performance plummets.

In 2005, Montana passed a law opening the door to four-day weeks. At first, only a few schools took advantage, but more and more schools have adopted the model.

One of the primary motivations for many schools stems from Montana’s vast geography - travel for school activities can eat up hours of instructional time. Ditto for medical appointments that have to be made in a larger city.

Football Fridays are somewhat emblematic of the situation, especially at schools where more than half of the boys in a school are on the team.

“We’d have nobody left in the building,” said Melstone Superintendent Kelly Haaland.

With so many students missing class, teachers, who are often coaches or chaperons as well, are forced to choose between not teaching new content or catching up half the class next week.

“Let’s face it,” said Custer Superintendent Dave Perkins. “When you have kids gone half the day, what kind of school do you really have?”

Perkins and Haaland said that things have gone swimmingly since their schools switched to a four-day week, in 2008 for Custer and the next year for Melstone.

In the first year of the new model, Melstone had 19 percent fewer absences; improved attendance is strongly linked to improved academic outcomes. In Custer, teachers said they enjoyed having more time per class period.

“I actually have been able to get more done,” said Charlene Heil, a business and technology teacher who taught at Custer before and after the switch. “When you have a longer time period you can have more depth of instruction.”

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from test scores reported on the OPI website for Custer and Melstone, as scores are only available since 2007 and are prone to significant variability.

A glowing 2011 Montana Office of Public Instruction report based on survey answers from schools said, “schools have experienced a significant decline in absenteeism and disciplinary issues, an improvement in student and staff morale, and rising achievement scores.”

Sustaining those outcomes is easier said than done, according to 2014 research from Tharp, the Sunburst superintendent, which has been submitted for publication. In addition to a population-size study of all four-day schools, he broke down the 22 schools in Montana that had been using the four-day week for more than five years in 2014.

He found that in 2011, standardized test scores were slightly below state averages - not uncommon for small, rural and especially reservation schools. But they dipped alarmingly in 2012 and again in 2013, falling farther away from state averages.

The results stunned Tharp at first.

“When it jumped out, I completely erased my spreadsheet and started over,” he said.

Test scores can easily jump around from year-to-year at small schools, and Tharp’s data - provided by OPI under confidentiality conditions - isn’t broken down for each school, but pools students together. Still, he’s confident that if there’s an academic trend, it’s not good.

That’s not what Mark Anderson, an assistant professor at MSU, found when he co-authored a recently published study examining four-day week schools in Colorado with a professor from Georgia.

That research found significant gains on standardized test scores for math and possible reading gains as well. It found weak evidence of attendance gains, but no indication that cost savings were reinvested in instructional expenses.

“I think they could be very generalizable to other rural areas,” Anderson said.

Establishing why a trend exists - up or down - is tougher. Tharp posits that when schools first switch, everyone brings their A-game, making sure they’re getting through what used to be more than a day’s learning in one day.

“There was a lot of focus, and people were really watching,” he said. “(But) they fall back into old routines, and they are only getting a day done in a day.”

John Matt, who chairs the University of Montana’s Department of Educational Leadership and oversaw Tharp’s research, said that he’s heard from new superintendents taking over at Montana districts using a four-day week and found schools floundering.

“The struggle is that they really need more” days of instruction, he said.

That’s not reflected in the earlier OPI reports.

“Almost every school feels the four-day school week fits its community like a glove and benefits everyone,” the 2011 report said. “Most would hate to return to the five-day week.”

Tharp said his conclusions don’t mean all schools using a four-day model are bound to tank eventually.

“There are probably districts in Montana that are holding steady, even showing some increases,” he said.

Perkins and Haaland both believe their schools are at least as well off as they were before the switch. But at least 13 schools - a small percentage - have abandoned the model, according to a comparison of a list of schools provided by OPI and Tharp’s research. It only took Reed Point one year.

The district adopted the model for the 2012-13 school year. Minutes from a school board meeting show teachers felt that student learning suffered, especially for at-risk students. Students said they missed less school for sports and medical appointments, but felt rushed during the week. The board voted to return to a five-day week.

That’s a scenario the small town of Roberts is hoping to avoid. When pitching the four-day schedule being used for the first time this year, school officials held several community meetings and informational sessions, Superintendent Alex Ator said. They focused on selling the school - the only one in Carbon County to use a four-day model - as an attractive alternative for students and teachers looking for something different.

They also emphasized the four-day week could cut down changes in class schedules or times within a week.

“A change a day for kids is really tough,” Ator said. “We focused on consistency, consistency, consistency.”

Roberts also holds a Friday program from 8 a.m. to noon; any student may attend, but those with failing or near-failing grades and missing assignments are required to attend.

“It’s not a day care program, it’s definitely enriching our curriculum,” Ator said.

Day care is often a major concern when schools propose having Fridays off. What will parents do with their kids?

In small communities, things simply seem to have a way of working out; neither Custer, Melstone nor Roberts has had major complaints. With no high school, there’s often babysitters available, for one.

Administrators agreed that the model isn’t well-suited to urban areas. Then-SD2 superintendent Jack Copps agreed when interviewed on the topic in 2007.

“It would be much more complicated for us, much more complex,” he said. “If you have 200 kids in a district, it’s a lot different than 15,500 kids.”

Still, it can be a tough sell in some rural communities; Bridger decided to implement a four-day week for the 2008-09 school year, then backed off. Eventually school trustees voted 3-2 to hold a referendum on the topic. The four-day week was barely shot down 181-161 in May 2009.

Ator believes that Roberts’ choice to not bring finances into the decision was key - plus he and others are skeptical about whether a four-day week yields significant savings.

It’s not something Melstone or Custer pushed hard either. Some savings can be found in transportation - Melstone’s longest route runs 160 miles each day - but that money can’t be transferred back into a school’s general fund. Utility savings often don’t materialize, especially for old buildings.

“It’s Montana, you can’t just not run the heater for three days,” Ator said.

Sunburst’s Tharp agreed that it’s not realistic to see savings, but he said he wouldn’t recommend a four-day week at his school because of his academic findings. That doesn’t mean it’s a blanket policy.

“I’m not going to tell a school to go to a four-day week or not go a four-day week,” he said. “But if you go to a four-day week I think people need to be aware” of potential pitfalls.

He believes that extensive professional development for educators could help counteract slippage with time.

A common theme for schools remains - extra-curricular activities and other student trips eat up less instructional time with a four-day schedule.

“They’re FFA members at the same time they’re (Business Professionals of America) members and the same time they’re volleyball or football players,” Perkins said. “They’re in activities up to their eyeballs.”

Ator said academic performance can be maintained so long as schools remain focused.

“You’ve got some people saying it’s the end of the world . to it’s great, to somewhere in the middle,” he said. “We weren’t going out saying that our test scores are going to go through the roof or they’re going to go through the floor.”

“What I personally feel is the schedule probably doesn’t have that heavy of an impact,” he said, citing conflicting studies.

Potential success may come down to an observation from Heil, and one that’s hardly exclusive to a four-day week.

“The kids come in with a good attitude,” she said. “They come in ready to work.”

___

Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com

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