School Gives High Marks To a Four-Day Week
Saratoga, Ark., finds its experiment cuts costs, boosts morale
Lewis Diggs faced a tough choice in 1997: cut school costs or face merging with a larger district. So the Saratoga, Ark., school superintendent opted for a drastic solution. He canceled school on Mondays and lengthened hours the rest of the week.Skip to next paragraph
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Parents were hesitant. Some teachers questioned the longer day. Even a number of students blanched at the idea of classes that were 13 minutes longer, despite the tradeoff of a three-day weekend.
A year later, those doubts have been erased - and the school's phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from superintendents eager to learn more about the experiment's success.
"You see a difference in morale throughout the school and the community," says principal Renee Parker. "The kids have this initiative to study harder and want to do better as young adults. On their days off, many of the juniors and seniors work at the local plant. I've never seen such a transformation."
The four-day week, while not new, has been gathering steam. Many districts have embarked on the program in an effort to cut costs. A shorter week has allowed many rural schools, where students travel long distances, to operate more efficiently.
But some administrators are finding that the approach can have more far-reaching benefits. Longer classes and three-day weekends, they say, have had a positive effect on everything from academic skills to discipline.
Cimarron, N.M., first tested the four-day week in the early 1980s to conserve energy. The movement took off briefly in the Western United States and continues as a popular cost-saving measure for rural schools. The trend, however, is quickly moving eastward, and into more Southern states.
"The four-day weeks work well, and probably best, in small communities that need to save money," says Joseph Newlin, executive director of the National Rural Education Association at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Colorado has 36 four-day school districts. But, he says, "for this to really work, the whole community, especially parents, needs to support it."
A 1997 Arkansas law allowed school districts to institute a four-day week as long as they maintained the same number of class hours. So far, only Saratoga has adopted the system.
The tiny town, which lies 30 miles from Bill Clinton's birthplace of Hope, was hardly primed to make state education history. Out of 311 Arkansas schools, Saratoga ranks 293rd in size and 27th for community poverty.
It makes the news when the Saratoga Bulldogs, the school's basketball team, makes the state Class B playoffs, or the district, which has 235 students from surrounding communities, doesn't rank high on test scores. When this happens, as it often does, the district is labeled "academically distressed," allowing the state to intervene in operations.
Fewer absences, more savings
Hopes are high that improvements sparked by the four-day week will reduce that threat.
Saratoga's students and teachers now attend school Tuesday through Friday. Teacher absences fell from 35 per term in the fall of 1996 to 15 this past term, saving $800. Disciplinary actions decreased from 70 to 39, and the number of students failing subjects fell by more than half.