Two school districts in Malheur County are mulling four-day school schedules, but some parents and education leaders are weighing the benefits and perceived drawbacks.
In Nyssa, the topic of shortening the school to four days a week has become a hot-button issue and has been discussed at the Nyssa School Board’s last two meetings. The board formed a committee to explore shifting to a shortened schedule.
The committee put out a survey asking families if they preferred a four-day week, a half-day on Friday, or a traditional, five-day week. Ryan Hawkins, Nyssa assistant superintendent, said that as of Monday, Feb. 13, out of 160 respondents, 60% favored the four-day week, 28% favored half-days on Friday and 12% were opposed to moving away from a five-day week.
During both meetings, parents, educators and district staffers weighed the benefits and drawbacks of shortening the school week. The upsides included the retention and recruitment of teachers. Given that, according to Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent, Nyssa is among one of the last school districts in the region that is still on a five-day schedule. The others, he said, include the Four Rivers School District and Annex, a K-8 district that feeds into Weiser.
Outlying districts in Idaho, such as those in Parma, Fruitland and Caldwell have moved to four-day weeks.
Johnson told the board during its Jan.23 meeting that it would be unwise to change the schedule just because all of the other districts have, or the move would help recruitment. He said those who did not want to teach or work in Nyssa would have to make a decision about whether they wanted to be there or not. However, he said, he believed there were educators that teach and work in the district because they want to be there.
Others worried that less classroom time could steepen the learning declines that Nyssa experienced on the heels of the pandemic.
Nyssa was below the state in most areas, including sixth- through eighth-grade math, K-5, 6-8 and junior math scores, according to the yearly assessment conducted by the state.
While the board tabled the decision until its next meeting, Johnson told board members at their meeting on Feb. 13 that he opposed shortening the school week.
“I think it’s wrong to propose after covid, where kids suffered so much without instruction, less instruction going forward,” Johnson said.
Jeremy Peterson, a Nyssa school board member, said after reading a lot of material on moving to a four-day week, the one theme he saw was that the four-day schedule benefits everyone but the students.
Nonetheless, Peterson said if the board ultimately decides to go to a four-day week then there needs to be a “structure” in place for the kids. He said that there would have to be tutorial Fridays.
Travis Sapp, a Nyssa school teacher who has worked in districts with four- and five-day weeks, pointed out that the board should consider test scores
“If you look at the data that we have with the current calendar,” Sapp said, “is it getting the results that you want?” As a teacher, Sapp said, the schools are not getting the test results that he wants with the current schedule.
Sapp, who also is a junior varsity basketball coach, said his conversations with school administrators and opposing coaches inevitably delve into the topic of four-day school schedules. He suggested board members talk to those in other school districts.
Cindy Ramos, the president of the union representing school employees such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians, told the board that a schedule that results in a decrease in the number of hours for classified staff would be a hardship for them. None are salaried, the president said, and many do not now get 40 hours of work a week. At best, they make between $15,000 to $25,000 annually, according to Ramos. .
Meanwhile, the Ontario School Board, which approved moving to a four-day schedule ahead of the 2022-23 school year, is expected to vote on continuing the shortened schedules at the school board’s Monday, Feb. 27, meeting, according to Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations coordinator
Nicole Albisu, district superintendent didn’t respond to multiple requests to answer a written list of questions. Instead, district officials directed the Enterprise to a Monday, Jan. 23 school board meeting, where Albisu gave a presentation to the board members about how the shortened schedules had fared for the school district.
Albisu said a district survey drew about 450 responses.
She said nearly 80% of those who responded favored the schedules, while 25% said they were initially opposed to the schedule but came around to supporting them. Meanwhile, over 50% of Ontario educators said the shortened schedule gives them more time to plan lessons and more time with students.
Albisu told the board that the school district moved to the shortened schedule to boost staff recruitment and retention, increase the professional development of teachers, improve district-wide attendance and give students opportunities to get work experience and tutoring hours, among other reasons.
Different school schedules and the outlying districts
Mark Redmond, Malheur County Education Service District superintendent, said three school schedules are in place in Malheur County. The first, he said, is the traditional five-day week schedule Then, he said, there are districts on “part-Friday” schedules, where students and staff come in for half days on Fridays. On those partial Fridays, students can come in for additional tutoring; teachers can work on lesson plans or professional development activities.
Finally, he said, there are the four-day schedules, where students and teachers come in Monday through Thursday. Those schools include Jordan Valley, Adrian and Junturas.
Structures, schedules and communities
Redmond, a science teacher in the Vale School District before becoming the education service district superintendent, said that the success of a four-day schedule depends on the community.
In his experience, Redmond said the “part Fridays” allowed him to do activities in his classroom that were outside of the norm. For instance, Redmond said he would teach kids how to tie hooks for fly fishing. In addition, he said many kids who would come in on those Fridays would have never come to school voluntarily.
Overall, he said, shifting to short class days on Fridays allowed teachers to spur student interest in school.
He said with school only part of the day on Friday, students engage in other activities.
Many of those kids will be helping on their family’s farm or working part-time. He said that a community with a strong Boys and Girls Club or YMCA would see a shortened schedule work well for kids in more urban areas.
“If a community doesn’t have those (activities) then those kids will be sitting idle on those Fridays,” he said. “That’s when you start to see issues arise” such as learning losses and absenteeism.
Vale’s school week
In the late 1990s, Vale’s School Board began considering shortened schedules amid a significant budget shortfall prompted by sagging enrollment numbers, according to Darlene McConnell, then-principal of Vale Elementary School. McConnel is a member of the Vale School Board.
By 2000, Vale shifted to a four-day schedule. Like Ontario and Nyssa, ahead of time the board surveyed students, staff and parents and collected as much data as it could.
At the time, she said the idea of shortening the schedule became a polarizing issue within the community, much like it is today over the concerns around learning declines, quality of education and childcare concerns.
In the first couple of years, she said the district worked out the kinks. For the elementary and middle school students, McConnell said teachers rotated bringing those kids who chose to come in for part Fridays. Meanwhile, she said, many of the high school students at the time had either sports, FFA or some extracurricular activity and were missing quite a bit of classroom time for travel. The district felt that the four-day week might alleviate the academic concerns of students missing so much school, said McConnell.
However, she said, the school got a lot of pushback from parents, especially those who lacked child care or worked full-time and could not get Fridays off. She said the district tried to help high school students to help with babysitting the kids of parents who could not get time off on Fridays. Some of the area’s larger employers including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Malheur County, let parents work four-day weeks by going to 10-hour days. Over time, she said, concerns diminished as the community came together.
McConnel said the shortened schedules worked out in the long run, especially for students who tended to fall behind during the week. Those smaller classrooms on Fridays allowed them to catch up. What school officials found, she said, was that the higher-performing students wanted to start coming in on Fridays.
“I think (part Fridays) help some kids learn to love school and learn to love learning,” she said.
She said district leaders acted quickly to eliminate what was not working.
“We worked out the kinks the first few years and I think if you asked people to go back to a five-day school week,” McConnell said, “they would think it would be quite challenging.”
What the research says
A recent study out of Oregon State University found that 11th-grade students who participated in a four-day school schedule performed slightly worse on standardized math tests when compared to students who attended school five days a week.
However, the study showed that among only four-day students, kids from non-rural areas performed slightly worse compared to students from rural school districts. In addition, the study controlled for non-schedule factors that influence school achievement scores to more closely gauge the impact of the four-day week.
The study found that those schools that move to a four-day solely to cut costs usually don’t offer part Fridays or other enrichment programs for students, such as tutorial Fridays because that does not result in cost savings or reduce teacher stress. As a result, in those districts, there is no way to compensate for the lost classroom time.
“The school districts driving these achievement differences are the ones that have really low levels of instructional time,” the study’s authors said. “That’s something schools have to reckon with in the pandemic, as well: How can we maintain instructional time in the absence of in-person learning?”
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