Despite savings, state nixing 4-day school week in some districts


Eleven Minnesota school districts are on four-day school weeks. They have been for years, in a move meant to save the cash-strapped rural schools money. And by many accounts, they are, with some districts reportedly seeing thousands of dollars back in their pockets every year.

That's not enough anymore.

MPR reports eight districts already have plans to switch back to five-day weeks, as the state's Department of Education shifts its focus off financial savings and back to student success. The site says education officials had not seen improved test scores from those districts, and concluded students weren't learning at a proper pace – meaning the four-day experiment will come to an end.

Four-day school weeks
– Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City
– Blackduck
– Clearbrook-Gonvick
– Comfrey
– Lake Superior
– Maynard-Clara City-Raymond
– North Branch
– Ogilvie
– Onamia
– Pelican Rapids
– Warroad

In Minnesota, districts must apply to the Department of education every three years in order to maintain the four-day school week, the Bemidji Pioneer notes.

The Department of Education gave five of the districts that were up for renewal one more year to transition; they'll return to a five-day week in 2015-16, MPR reports. Three districts will go back to five days a week this fall. Two more are up for renewal in 2015, and one is up for renewal in 2016.

Impact on Learning, Families

Nationwide, 21 states have school districts operating on a four-day week, the National Conference of State Legislatures says. And according to U.S. News, many of those have come in the last five years.

While research on the effect of a four-day school week is relatively scarce, U.S. News says proponents point to increased attendance as one of the key benefits, as families have an extra weekday to schedule appointments or run other necessary errands. The publication also says a 2009 report showed had no negative impact on a student's academic performance.

Four-day weeks have their pros and cons. For working parents, it can be a major hassle to find child care on the off-day, although according to the Lake County News Chronicle, a survey sent out in 2013 to Lake Superior School District residents found 70-80 percent of community members (including students and staff) viewed the four-day week as a positive.

Gary Simms, the principal of Maynard-Clara City-Raymond (MACCRAY) Senior High School, told Education Week child care is often mentioned as a concern. But since implementaion, he's heard few complaints.

“If parents know when they will need a babysitter, 99 percent are responsible enough to get one,” he said.

Financial Savings

Many school districts reported significant savings after switching to the four-day week, mainly in transportation costs.

MN2020 found the MACCRAY district, which has 710 students, saved about $143,000. MACCRAY switched over in the 2008-09 school year, the first current district to do so. Blackduck, which made the move in the fall of 2009, expected to save $70,000 its first year in the shorter week, MN2020 reported.

The Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City district saved an estimated $65,000 when it chopped off a day beginning in the 2010-11 school year, MinnPost reported.

The North Branch district gave a presentation saying it saved $250,000 a year by shortening the week (though the school board opted not to seek approval from the education department for another year of four-day weeks, the Chisago County Press reported, instead voting itself to return to a Monday-through-Friday schedule).

In January, the AP reported the Pelican Rapids School District saved about $100,000 per year by giving students Mondays off and lengthening the school days.

Lake Superior School District Superintendent Bill Crandall told the Lake County News Chronicle it's saved about $225,000 each year since switching to a four-day week in 2010.

Many of the publications also note students and their families were in favor of the four-day weeks; teachers also appeared OK with the move, saying the amount of learning compared to a five-day week didn't change; and school districts found attendance was better and test scores weren't drastically impacted.

Why Go Back?

Education officials, according to the Lake County News Chronicle, contested that last point. Josh Collins, director of communications for the education department, told the publication math and reading scores in the Lake Superior district are down over the last four years. And in other districts, test scores hadn't gone up at all, he said.

When the Sleepy Eye School District applied with the Department of Education for a four-day school week, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told them no, MN2020 noted back in 2012. She cited a concern over students who rely on free or reduced lunch, the site reported – with an extra day off, that's a meal the family has to cover at full price somewhere.

An increase in education spending is also playing a role. In 2013, lawmakers approved nearly half a billion dollars in additional funding for schools, the Pioneer Press reported.

Collins, of the education department, told MPR that new money should help schools' bottom line. Crandall tells the site the new funding will cover a lot of – but not all – of the additional costs that come with a five-day week.

North Branch had said they would revert back to a five-day school week if new funding (not as part of a local operating levy) was approved, the Chisago County Press reported.

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Minnesota school officials considering the change to a four-day school week are having trouble getting approval from the state. Sleepy Eye's request was recently denied by the state's education chief, who cited the impact on students who receive free and reduced lunches. Many districts also say the application process for a shorter school week is extraordinarily complex.