Rural schools try longer days, four-day weeks

Dwindling budgets mean some kids suddenly have lots of free time on Friday

The sun is just beginning to glint over hills where coyotes prowl and deer nibble at wheat stubble when 13-year-old Jordan Damron boards his school bus. It's 5:30 a.m. He won't return home for almost 12 hours.

This seventh grader's 10-mile commute is an ordinary part of life in this tiny farming community in north-central Idaho - but this year his long school day got even longer.

The town of Orofino has instituted a four-day school week as a way to trim costs in an era of bare-bones budgets. Classes run longer each day, but on most Fridays the school is dark, school buses are idle, and kids stay home.

Few other options were at hand. There's no money to fix the pre-World War I school, an aged red-brick structure among the state's most dilapidated. There's no money for plenty of other things, too, so the community made the hard decision last summer to shorten the school week.

The experiment is raising questions about how a shorter week affects learning, and whether the monetary savings are worth the academic cost. And, as in other places that are trying four-day weeks, the move is also forcing lifestyle changes for schoolchildren, parents, and teachers alike.

"As an educator I would never have taken this route, but we just simply don't have the money to keep going," says Superintendent Al Arnzen, a 30-year veteran who says the financial climate in the state's schools is the worst he's ever seen.

Mostly rural school systems in at least 12 states are experimenting with the shorter week, finding that by lengthening the school day by more than an hour and knocking off Friday or Monday saves money on things like transportation and heating. But views are mixed and research is scanty on whether the cost savings are sufficient and if students are suffering academically.

Ted Sizer, the former dean of the Harvard School of Education, goes as far to say the four-day week is a disgrace to the educational ideals of the "richest country in the history of world." [Editor's note: In the original version, Sizer's name was misspelled.]

"My instinct is that it's a trend in the wrong direction," says Mr. Sizer. "Kids need a lot of attention in schools and to reduce the days they have per week in an already shortened academic year, it doesn't make an awful lot of sense."

But rural school districts from state to state aren't left with too many options as local economies struggle and fixed expenses such as energy costs and health insurance continue to climb.

Located in the heart of the Clearwater National Forest, Orofino (pop. 8,544) is about as rural as it gets. Lewis and Clark passed through here in 1805 on their trek to the Pacific Ocean. Portions of bus routes still follow their historic trail.

In 2000, about 200 jobs were lost when area lumber mills shuttered and the taxable value of property plunged. Faced with a $650,000 deficit, the Orofino district is in its first year of trying a school schedule that has been implemented around the country for more than two decades.

The shortened week cuts down on student and teacher absences, and the fifth day is used for teacher training or personal appointments.

The Orofino district had hoped shutting down on Fridays would save $150,000. But after the first full semester, only $12,000 in savings had been accounted for so far.

In Oregon, where 25 school districts are currently on the four-day schedule, school officials have been similarly disappointed.

"In order to make the economics work it's really necessary that you be a widely disbursed operation with extreme climate swings, so that closing a building down for a day means something," says Bob Dunton, superintendent of the 620-student Corbett School District in Multnomah, County.

In the Saratoga, Ark., school district where the four-day week was tried for three years in the late 1990s, administrators finally decided the blow to class time outweighed monetary gains.

"It saved probably $25,000 to $30,000," says high school Principal Renee Parker. "But not enough to justify losing a morning of instruction.... It didn't do anything to help academics."

But in Dexter, Kan., a town with a population of 400, the four-day week has been working for more than 20 years. "[We decided] if test scores dropped we would drop it," say Jerry Golden, superintendent of the Unified School District 471. "Test scores did not drop and ... are well above the state average." The tiny district also boasts a 97.5 attendance record.

In Orofino, residents are still getting used to the idea - at school and at home.

"My mom is a cook at the high school and her paycheck has been cut a little bit for not having that extra day, says Jessi Graham, a senior at Orofino High School. "That's kind of detrimental to our family because we're not making as much income as we did last year."

The biggest problems so far have to do with long, tiring days in class, and finding day care for the children whose parents work outside the home. Some school officials hope community groups such as churches and scouting troops will take advantage of the free day and develop new programs.

"My kids are ... worn out," says Becky Jo Parris of Orofino who has been opposed to the idea all along. Unable to afford day care on Fridays for her two children, 7 and 10, she and her husband stagger their lunch hours and stay in touch with their children by phone.

Other Orofino families are enjoying more togetherness. "For us it works nice," says Kari Gering, the mother of a 5- and 6-year-old. "We're an outdoors family so it allows us to do things on a Friday."

And Jordan Damron doesn't mind rising a bit earlier each day if that means he can have Fridays to do as he pleases.

"I think it's pretty cool," he says. "I get to stay home and play video games."

Kendra Nordin contributed to this report.

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