By Joshua Benton
MIDLAND, La. – It sounds like a school calendar Ferris Bueller would dream up: every Friday’s a day off.
At Midland High School, in this remote outpost of the south Louisiana prairie, it’s reality. And proponents in several states say it might be a way to score a rare educational double play: raising student performance while cutting costs.
“The morale among the students and teachers is much better now,” said Clyde Briley, Midland’s principal. “They like coming to school more, so they try harder.”
Four-day weeks are popular in rural areas of Texas’ neighboring states, such as Louisiana and New Mexico. But don’t look for it to become popular here; the way Texas funds schools makes it virtually impossible barring a change in state law.
The idea doesn’t seem logical at first: decreasing days in school at a time when some districts are pushing toward year-round calendars. But more than 100 school districts say it gets students more motivated in the limited time they have.
Four-day school weeks are typically a response to financial troubles. They first appeared in rural districts during the 1970s energy crunch, as schools looked for ways to limit heating, air conditioning and transportation costs.
Because they can cover large geographic areas, rural schools typically have higher transportation costs. Small districts are often faced with declining tax bases or pressure to consolidate with neighboring districts, and any way to cut costs is welcome.
In Colorado, where the shortened school week is most popular, more than 40 of the state’s 178 school districts take an extra day off. Most have fewer than 400 students spread over a wide area.
In a typical four-day schedule, a school day lasts an hour or two longer. Proponents say it allows for longer stretches of uninterrupted class time and gets students and teachers more focused on the day’s lessons. Absenteeism drops because parents can plan doctor’s appointments and trips for Fridays.
When a four-day week is proposed, the first criticism is often a basic one: “What do the kids do on Friday?”
“I tell them: ‘They do the same thing they do during the summer, or during Thanksgiving week, or on holidays,'” said James Farris, principal of Estherwood Elementary, one of three Midland High feeder schools that has also switched to four-day weeks. “Parents figure something out.”
Best in rural areas
The calendar works best in rural, established communities, where there are likely to be aunts, grandparents and others who can watch children on days off, he said. Some kids work on the family farm on days off. Other high schoolers have started baby-sitting businesses and watch younger children.
“It was a concern when we moved to the four-day, but I haven’t gotten a single complaint from a parent once it’s gotten started,” Mr. Briley said.
Midland, part of the Acadia Parish school district, is one of several Louisiana schools to have moved to the four-day schedule in the last few years. But its reasons were more academic than financial, and school officials say they’re cautiously optimistic that it’s working.
“We have good kids,” Mr. Briley said. “They’re good students, and we weren’t doing poorly before. It’s just that you could see a lack of motivation in them, an apathy. We wanted them to try harder, and kids wanted an immediate reward.”
So along with the usual longer school days, Midland added a new wrinkle: If students fail a class during any grading period, they’re required to come in three hours on Fridays for small-group instruction. Teachers are paid $25 an hour for those Friday sessions.
When a student has a disciplinary problem, he or she is made to work around campus on Friday instead of being suspended.
“Our grass on campus doesn’t look so good right now, but when they start coming in on Fridays, it’ll look a lot better,” Mr. Briley joked.
That change created a strong incentive for students to raise their grades, and Mr. Briley said the increased effort has been obvious. The number of failing grades has been cut in half, and the school’s average grade-point average increased from 2.41 to 2.87.
Because of the extra money paid to teachers for Friday classes — and because the school still runs buses on Fridays — Acadia Parish officials say the four-day week doesn’t save money over a standard schedule.
But students, to no one’s surprise, love having Fridays off.
“I’ve seen improvements in myself and my friends” with the new calendar, said Shelby Manceaux, a 19-year-old senior who Mr. Briley said was at risk of failing but has recovered to make the honor roll. “You can barely tell the days are longer, and you want to work harder to get Fridays off.”
A four-day week can also be a way for rural schools to attract teachers despite the typically lower salaries they offer. Having every Friday off can be a potent pitch.
“It makes you value the time you do have in the classroom and do a better job of planning your lesson,” said Deborah Guagliardo, an English teacher and librarian.
The question is, what impact can a four-day week have on student achievement and test scores? Little research has been done in the area, and drawing conclusions has typically been hampered by the small size of the schools.
“I think we can say that at least it doesn’t hurt student achievement,” said Gary Sibigtroth, Colorado’s assistant education commissioner. “What we don’t know is if it helps.”
Mr. Sibigtroth is the former superintendent of the East Grand school district, the largest in Colorado to have a four-day week. But at only 1,100 students, few would confuse it with Dallas or Houston schools.
Midland recently found out how its students performed on Louisiana’s standardized test. The percentage of its eighth-graders performing satisfactorily increased from 51 to 63 percent – well ahead of the parish as a whole. Tenth-grade math scores also went up, but English scores dropped.
Of the three four-day elementary schools, one improved significantly, one dropped slightly, and one stayed about the same.
But parish officials say they don’t want to draw any conclusions from just one year of data – particularly when dealing with such small sample sizes. At the elementary schools, there are typically fewer than 30 students in each grade.
If a Texas school wanted to follow Midland’s model, it would run into difficulty. There’s nothing in Texas law that requires schools to have a five-day week. But in practice, the school funding law makes the option impossible.
Texas schools receive state funding based on average attendance per day, including Fridays – more students attending on more days means more funding. So a school that converted to a four-day week would be sacrificing 20 percent of its state funding.
Officials say schools expecting a cure for all their ills will need to look at options far more extensive than a four-day week.
“I don’t know if there’s anything magical about how you organize your school day,” said Bob Mooneyham, executive director of the National Rural Education Association. “You still have to have well-qualified teachers in the classroom, good, strong administrative leadership and commitment from the community in order to have a good school system.”