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.
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.
The school saved almost $22,000 in one semester by eliminating 36 days of transportation, cleaning, and energy usage. That amount is slightly more than one starting teacher's salary, and a significant number in a $1.2 million budget.
With the savings, the district hopes to add new programs like Reading Recovery, which aids students with reading problems. Some teachers are already involved in a tutoring program on Monday afternoons, and every teacher has revamped course outlines and developed new teaching methods for the longer day.
Students grade the idea
For students, the additional hour and a half each day has, by most reports, been unexpectedly palatable. Elementary students have gotten a windfall: 30-minute recesses to break up a longer day that begins with English and math, has art and music at midday, and other courses after lunch.
Initially, parents worried about finding babysitters on Mondays but realized it was easier to fill one day a week than every day after school. Parents and students often arrive home at the same time, cutting down the number of latchkey kids. Parents also have seen a change in older siblings wanting to care for their younger ones.
In higher grades, the extra 13 minutes in a period give teachers more time to have discussions and students the chance to start - and sometimes finish - homework with a teacher nearby to help.
"The first day we all complained," says Kieliema Porter, Saratoga's senior class president. "But then we got used to it, and I like it better than a five-day week. I work all day Monday at the factory, and there are times when I am ready to get back to school on Tuesday. I was never ready to come back when we only had two days off."
Even the basketball players like the schedule. If the team needs to practice on Monday, it can without having to worry about cutting it short for class.
"I thought there was no way I wanted to be in school an extra hour," said Lee Munn, a senior basketball player. "But I'm actually doing better in school now than before because the teachers spend more time with you. Everyone seems more into school."
Superintendent Diggs says he doesn't feel like Superman for saving his district, but he does appear relieved and proud.
"No district ever wants to be swallowed up by another one," Diggs says. "This gives small schools and a community a chance to try to save themselves. And if a rural school can stay as the center of a community and avoid merging, then it has done something worthwhile for its students."
Calling Young Writers
The Monitor will launch a weekly education section next month - and we're looking for contributions from teenage students.
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