- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Two public school districts in North Dakota will be shifting to four-day school weeks this fall in an effort to save money and increase student and staff morale.

While more than a quarter of schools in bordering South Dakota run on four-day schedules, the districts in the Dunseith and East Fairview will be the first two in the North Dakota in several years. The Department of Public Instruction approved the switches in April.

Pat Brenden, superintendent at the 425-student Dunseith Public School district, said they’ve seen dramatic decreases in federal funding in recent years, which led them to consider the modified schedule.

The district is made of a large portion of non-taxable public trust land and to make up for fewer property taxpayers, the district relies heavily on Federal Impact Aid Funding. But two years ago the district saw a $600,000 decrease in funding. Officials were able to balance the budget, but had to cut four positions and consolidate bus routes. Brenden said knowing more cuts were coming pushed them toward making a change.

“We just really can’t cut staff any more without really affecting programs,” he said.

Brenden said the district hopes to save close to $250,000 as a four-day schedule decreases energy costs and expenses such as running the school cafeteria.

Dunseith is following the pattern of other schools nationwide that rely on Federal Impact Aid Funding and have gone to four-day weeks in the wake of cuts, Brenden said.

Dale Wetzel, a spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction, said the department won’t approve schools to switch to four-day weeks solely for financial reasons. Districts have to show the department they will increase the education quality for students.

Brenden said studies of the approximately 120 schools around the country that run on four-day weeks have shown that morale and attendance have increased in students and staff.

Weeks will run Monday through Thursday at Dunseith. Friday will be development days and time that students can get extra help. And because they’re lengthening their classes by ten minutes each, Brenden said Dunseith students will actually be in school more over the course of the year than those at schools with traditional schedules.

Dunseith said 95 percent of parents surveyed said they supported the change if it meant teachers could keep their jobs and the quality of the education wouldn’t be negatively affected. A few also mentioned the issue of child care on Fridays.

Derek Gackle, the principal of East Fairview Elementary, has seen the changes firsthand in his two children that attend Fairview Elementary across the border in Montana. Fairview began running on a four-day schedule this year. He said his kids are more upbeat knowing they have a shorter week.

“Hey, it’s four days, we can get through it,” he said, describing his kids’ attitudes.

East Fairview is changing their schedule to mirror Fairview’s, where North Dakota students attend high school.

Gackle said the shorter schedule will also allow staff to have more development days. The state currently requires two per year.

“Now we’ll actually have 10,” Gackle said.

Steve Willard, the superintendent at Belle Fourche Public Schools in South Dakota, said freeing up Fridays allows teachers more development time, gives struggling students more time to get specialized attention and mitigates how much school time student athletes have to sacrifice.

About a quarter of schools in South Dakota, including Belle Fourche who switched in 2003, run on a four-day school schedule.

Data from South Dakota’s Department of Public Education shows that about 40 schools - or 26 percent - run on four-day weeks. Brenden said they found there are about 120 nationwide.

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