MSU deal

This school year, 25 of Missouri’s 518 school districts are implementing an alternative school calendar model which has four days in a school week, typically with classes in session Tuesday through Friday. 

By switching to the shortened school week, Missouri  law requires school districts to maintain the same number of instructional hours as the traditional schedule. Teachers are also usually required to attend at least one professional development day a month on one of the days removed from the student calendar.  While currently a small group, the number of four-day school week districts in Missouri is growing since the option was first allowed in 2009.     

The four-day school week is not new to education.  At times, typically during a financial crisis, states and school districts have temporarily shifted to four-day school weeks to save money.  During the Great Depression, it was fairly common for schools to have four-day school weeks in the rural area of the United States.  During the OPEC oil embargo in 1973 and 1974, some school districts nationwide temporarily moved to a four-day week to save money on fuel and heating costs.  In recent years, school districts in Hawaii, Utah, and Oklahoma have moved to a four-day school week to deal with state budget shortfalls.  Missouri’s move to allow the shortened school week also became an option for schools to give flexibility in coping with statewide funding issues.  Financial savings for schools have typically been modest, with savings of less than five percent.

Especially in the Mountain West states, four-day school weeks are common. In Colorado, for example, a majority of school districts are using the four-day school week this year. Due to the exceptionally large geographic size and relatively small numbers of students in rural areas of the mountain states, the four-day school week has been more popular than in other parts of the country. Missouri school districts, however, are relatively small in land size with most small towns retaining their local schools even in sparsely populated areas. Of Missouri’s 518 school districts, 106 have a total student enrollment of less than 200 students, and 62-percent have a kindergarten through grade 12 enrollment of less than 800.

All of the school districts currently using the four-day week in Missouri are in rural areas with most having a school district enrollment of fewer than 500 students.  Of the 27 school districts in Missouri that have implemented a four-day day school week in Missouri since 2009, only one, the Lexington R-V School District in Lafayette County, returned to the five-day week. Another, the Stet School District in Ray County, was consolidated into a neighboring school district after implementation. The Lathrop R-II School District in Clinton County has the longest tenure using the shortened week and is currently in the eighth year of using a four-day school week.

In order to better understand the growing move to four-day school weeks in Missouri, a research team from Missouri State University conducted a study of three Missouri school districts that were in the first year of using the new school calendar.  This study focused on the perceptions of parents, faculty, staff, and community/business leaders about the change in the school week. Over 1,000 surveys were distributed as part of the study in these school districts during the 2015-2016 school year.

Findings from the research uncovered that parents strongly support the shorted school week and find few faults with the model. Expected concerns about difficulty in finding childcare, lack of school breakfast and lunch programs during days out of school, and student academic performance were not found in the parents’ responses. Parents with only elementary aged children and parents with children receiving special education services are less enthusiastic than other parents, but, even these two parent groups were supportive of the change in the school calendar.

The overwhelming support of school staff and faculty within the school district may be at the center of why many school districts are looking into the alternative calendar. All school employees, even those who would see a negative impact on their paycheck, were strongly supportive of the four-day school week.  Teachers often cited more time for collaboration, preparation, and professional development as a reason for their support.  Teachers also perceived little negative effect on student learning for most students.  Teachers felt the shortened week increased student attendance and effort in classes.  Teachers responded that the calendar also made it more likely they would remain in the school district.

Rural Missouri schools are finding it harder and harder to hire and retain highly qualified and effective teachers. With rural schools usually paying teachers less than larger school districts and with new college graduates often reluctant to move to rural areas of the state, many school districts have few applicants for many teaching positions. Those who do come to rural schools are often lured away in a few years by other school districts with higher salaries and better benefits, better access to teaching resources, newer facilities, and access to social and recreational opportunities.  The four-day school week can be a powerful perk that some rural schools can offer to applicants and employees that more wealthy and urban schools cannot provide. 

Dr. Shannon Snow, the Superintendent of the Stockton R-I School District in Cedar County says, “I’ve heard that education majors at local universities check for jobs at our district first because of the four-day schedule.”  

Some four-day week school administrators admit they hope other schools will not switch to the shortened school week because it could lessen the power of the shortened school week as a recruitment and retention tool for teachers.

Dr. Karl Janson of the Everton R-III School District credits the four-day school week when he said, “we are one of the lowest paying districts in southwest Missouri, and we have not lost a teacher to a larger district in two years.” 

Other Missouri school leaders tell stories of being able to keep teaching couples in their districts because they can have more family time. Some report that with a four-day school week, they are getting applicants from farther distances because teachers are willing to drive longer distances to teach if they are usually only driving to school four days per week. The last group studied was community and business leaders in the school districts that just shortened the school week.  In small, rural communities, the school district is often the “economic engine” that drives a region. One study from the U.S. Forestry Service found that for every 100 school jobs created in rural areas, an additional 56 jobs are created in a region due to business sales and household spending. Often the school district is the best source of stable jobs with salaries that are above average in rural communities. Students, families, and school events bring traffic and customers to businesses. The research team wondered what economic impact the shortened week was having on local businesses?  Results found that overall, community and business owners were neutral in their opinions on the economic impact in their community. The largest difference between business owners’ perceptions was found in those that no longer had students in school; this group supported a return to the traditional five-day school week. Business owners with children still in school were strongly supportive of staying on the new four-day school week. Overall, there appeared to be no economic reason, from the perspective of community and business owners, to not pursue a four-day school week in rural communities.

Whether due to the need for more time for staff professional development, to save money, or to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers, the research found that in the three school districts we studied, there appears to be strong support for the four-day school week. The decision to implement the four-day school week will be strongly tied to the unique local context of each school district. The shortened week would probably be difficult to implement in larger, suburban and urban school districts; however, we suspect based on these results, the number of small, rural school districts exploring the four-day school week option will continue to increase in Missouri.   

MISSOURI STATE UNIVERSITY

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