In rural areas, the four-day school week is growing in popularity

Annie Bergeaux and her high school classmates in Midland, La., will be taking most Fridays off this year, spending the time swimming, shopping, baby-sitting, playing basketball, or just hanging out with friends.

It's all with the blessing of their teachers, their parents, and school officials.

Bucking a nationwide trend toward bulking up school calendars, dozens of rural school districts are actually paring back their work weeks, cramming more academics into four days.

The trade-off: School days are an hour or more longer than in most schools.

Schools find that knocking off Fridays or Mondays can save money on transportation, heating, and substitute teachers. Advocates say four-day weeks have other advantages: They cut down on student and teacher absences, and the fifth day is used for teacher training or to free up teachers for personal appointments.

About 100 school districts in six states – Louisiana, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and South Dakota – are trying it this year. All are rural and most are small, each with fewer than 1,000 students.

Annie spent her freshman year at tiny Midland High School on four-day weeks and loved them. "By the end of the week you aren't frustrated with everybody," she says.

In many rural areas, the change allows schools to keep art, music, and other classes that are often cut in tight budgets.

Four-day weeks also improve student morale and behavior, says Clyde Briley, principal of Midland, 150 miles west of New Orleans.

"The biggest problem we had was in motivating students to do their best," he says.

"I felt that this was a good motivational thing – if you ... work hard and do your best, you can have some extra time to do other things, what you like to do, or to have a part-time job."

Mr. Briley says grade-point averages rose "considerably" last year during the first Fridays-off calendar, with failing grades down 50 percent. "Kids have tried harder," he says.

In most districts, schools reserve Fridays for field trips, football games, and special activities such as homecoming; the Monday-Thursday schedule is for academics.

Critics point out that the 1990s actually brought a push to extend the school calendar past the traditional 180 days, to resemble those in Japan and Europe.

"It's really unusual for people to turn the clock back, in a sense, and have fewer school days," says Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, which studies social, economic, and political issues. "I haven't seen too many people say with a straight face that this produces superior academic performance, so I definitely don't expect this one to take off."

Independent education researcher Joy Dryfoos agrees. "I would think it would wreak havoc with any working parent's schedule," she says.

But Briley, who says parents "enjoy having their kids available on Friday," says his school will try the four-day week it again this fall.

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