- Associated Press - Friday, September 9, 2016

JASPER, Mo. (AP) - Faced with a tight budget, the Jasper School District made cuts. Summer school and pre-kindergarten programs were discontinued. When a Spanish teacher left the district, her class was replaced with online coursework.

Now Jasper is trying another experiment to save money: No school on Mondays. Starting in August, Jasper students have been attending school only four days per week.

With that shift, Jasper - with 474 students - becomes the latest district in Southwest Missouri to go to a format that is gaining traction statewide, particularly in rural areas. Miller and Pierce City schools are starting their second year on the condensed schedule, which has now been adopted by 18 districts in Missouri - up from nine last year.

The Joplin Globe (https://bit.ly/2cfUabG ) reports that the growing popularity of the four-day week in Missouri comes as education funding continues to fall short of the amount called for by the state foundation formula. This school year, the gap between what lawmakers allocated and what the formula called for was $398 million for all Missouri schools.

Administrators in Jasper say they hope the change will yield savings for the district. With its municipal tax base already stretched thin - Jasper receives 5 percent less in funding from local sources than the average Missouri school system - cutting the budget was the only alternative.

“Financially, it really seemed to make a lot of sense for us right now,” Christina Hess, principal of Jasper High School, said of the shift to the four-day week. “We had to make some really serious cuts anyway, but the potential savings helped us to save making some other cuts.”

Hess said she expects the shorter week to save money on such things as food service and bus fuel - 20 percent, in theory - as well as from pay and benefits for custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, paraprofessionals, the school nurse and other support staff who will also stay home on Mondays and be paid for only four days per week. Teacher pay is not impacted.

While the four-day week first gained popularity as a cost-cutting strategy, additional benefits of the schedule drew the attention of fiscally stable districts such as Miller and Pierce City, which have not cut pay or benefits for non-certified staff. Superintendents there cite teacher and student satisfaction - not cost savings - as the primary motivation for the change.

No Missouri district has yet been forced to revert to the traditional five-day format by a state law that requires districts that go to the four-day schedule to maintain their previous academic performance level on the new schedule.

Hess is quick to list a few of the benefits that she said could accrue to the district, including:

. Decreased absenteeism for teachers and students, the result of a school schedule that allows for medical appointments during the week.

. More professional development and planning time for teachers.

. Less commuting time for students and teachers.

. Longer class periods and deeper, better-planned lessons.

–—

Daycare challenges

Between youth football and a varsity volleyball match, the Jasper schools parking lot was full on a recent Friday evening. Children played on the grass or waited, piled into vans, while their siblings finished at practice. Parents just off work sat in folding chairs, watching their young sons’ progress on the field.

Several parents said that the new schedule had posed a childcare challenge, among them Travis Ritchhart. While he sees benefits to the four-day schedule, he said that Mondays are now a challenge. He has six children enrolled at Jasper.

“It’s a heck of a job to find something to do with them one day a week,” he said. “You take six kids and try to find childcare for them during the day, and that’s a chunk of change, one we weren’t used to spending.”

So far, his children have spent their days off helping out on the family farm or under the eye of their grandmother.

“Five days of school,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s been that way since the beginning of time.”

Some students said they like the shift because they have more time for their own passions and goals, and more time to spend with family.

Sidney Webb, a freshman at Jasper High School, said the change has been good for the district.

“It helps the teachers; it helps everyone.”

On Mondays, she said, “I just kind of sit there. I just do all the homework I didn’t do on the weekend.”

Though a four-day school week was first attempted by a South Dakota school district in the 1930s, it remained an oddity of education policy until 40 years later, when the OPEC crisis sent oil prices skyrocketing and school districts in search of fuel savings. Sparsely populated rural districts, whose school buses cover more miles than urban districts, were among the first to try it, and most four-day districts are still located west of the Mississippi River.

The condensed format was first implemented in Missouri in 2011, after the legislature changed the minimum school time requirement from 174 days to a total of 1,044 hours. At the time, 21 states had adopted similar legislation.

In Jasper, those four remaining school days have been extended by 30 minutes each. Professional development time for teachers, which had been scattered throughout the school week in the past, and which had traditionally resulted in some early-out days, has been consolidated into Mondays, meaning the teachers have a five-day school schedule once a month. Students also will be going to school on days they might have traditionally been off, such as a shorter Christmas break this fall.

Hess said Jasper students also will see a “slight decrease” in instructional hours this year, as well, noting that last year students attended for 1,089 hours - 45 hours longer than the state requirement.

Miller and Pierce City also extended their school days as well, for the four days students are in school.

–—

Attracting teachers

The latter two school districts also found that the four-day schedule is a good option for rural school districts for another reason: Such districts often struggle to attract teachers, and teachers prefer a four-day week.

“For teachers there’s a big benefit,” said Willa Tucker, a veteran teacher in Stockton schools. “If we didn’t have Mondays to do curriculum and paperwork and come up with effective lesson plans, well, something’s got to give. There’s only so many hours in the day.”

Since the district went to the new schedule last year, Tucker has come to work every Monday - even days she should have off - to write lesson plans and grade student work. But she says this is an improvement over the previous 25 years of her career, when she was also raising her children.

“I worked every Saturday when they were growing up to do lesson planning,” she said.

Pierce City, Stockton, Miller and Jasper schools have all increased the time they formally allot for teacher professional development by requiring teachers to come to school one or two days a month on days students are now off.

Superintendents such as Dustin Storm, of Miller Public Schools, hope to leverage the appeal of the four-day week to stabilize his district, which has suffered from high teacher turnover.

“The most important thing is to recruit and keep the best teachers,” he said, adding that his district went to a four-day schedule despite a budget surplus of nearly 30 percent.

Two years ago, when Storm started as superintendent, 25 percent of Miller’s 44 teachers departed, barely down from 27 percent the year before. A year into the new schedule, teacher retention has improved: Only 15 percent of Miller’s teachers left during the first year of the new schedule, Storm said.

Retaining teachers is only part of the challenge for rural districts, which are handicapped in the hiring process by their distance from nearby cities.

Russ Moreland, superintendent of the Pierce City School District, said the new policy has drawn in more qualified applicants.

“Four of our seven new teachers have teaching experience,” he said. “For a district of our size and distance from Joplin and Springfield, we usually hire first-year teachers.”

–—

Lexington reversal

Not all Missouri districts experimenting with the four-day format have stuck with it, however. Two years after making the switch, the Lexington School District returned to a five-day week, becoming the only district to do so since the policy’s implementation. Lexington added an hour to each school day when it went to the four-day plan.

Superintendent Dan Hoehn said there were no improvements in student achievement or teacher retention, and that budgetary gains - the primary reason for the shift - were smaller than expected. With more than 900 students, Lexington is on the large end of small and rural, especially considering its technical education center that brings in additional students from other districts. Absent the benefits other smaller districts saw on a four-day schedule, administrators could no longer justify its costs.

“I come from districts that have been successful with the five-day week,” Hoehn said. “And the longer days were tough. I think they were tough on the kids.”

Lexington is not the only district to find that cutting one fifth of the school week had a marginal effect on school costs.

The Lathrop School District - the first to adopt the the four-day week in Missouri - reported annual savings of about 1.5 percent, or $125,000. Schools in Miller saw similar outcomes in the first year of the policy: districtwide savings of $55,000, particularly on electricity, bus fuel and propane, or about 1 percent of the district’s total budget.

Despite that, the Miller Board of Education unanimously has renewed the four-day policy for a second year.

Two weeks into the new schedule, and with budgetary questions still looming, it remains to be seen how Jasper schools will fare.

As clouds darkened over the high school and the parking lot emptied, Nichole Newby loaded her son’s bike into the family van. Usually he rides home from practice, but she didn’t want him getting caught in the storm.

The first drops fell as Newby, who has four children at Jasper Elementary, explained concerns about the four-day week.

“I took an extra day off of work,” she said. “It’s too expensive for me to pay for a babysitter for four children for one day. So I took the day off.”

She also worries about the effect longer school days and the impact of pay cuts on aides who work with her children.

But her kids don’t seem to mind the schedule so far, and she said she is happy to have them in Jasper schools, even in lean times.

“We’re pretty partial to this school,” she said. “That’s why the kids are here, is because of this school. The teachers here really care, so they do a good job.”

___

Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, https://www.joplinglobe.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide