Doubts on 4-day school; Lancaster ISD: Studies touted by officials reveal a lack of academic gains

By Joshua Benton and Karen Ayres
Staff Writers

Page 1B

Lancaster school officials told parents and school board members this week that a proposal to switch to a four-day school week was based on solid research showing academic benefits. But the studies they produced show inconclusive and, at times, negative results.

Superintendent Larry Lewis said he and his staff had used Google to thoroughly research their proposal – dubbed “Four Days to Exemplary” – which he characterized as part of a one-year pilot program to start this fall.

His office supplied three studies to the public that focused on four-day programs in small, remote school districts, including one in Micronesia and another on islands off the west coast of Canada. Much of the research reported little evidence of academic gains. Some of the districts have since abandoned four-day plans.

“We have researched this to the hilt for our kids,” Dr. Lewis told nearly 1,000 parents and students Thursday night.

Many parents at the forum questioned the applicability of the research Dr. Lewis produced.

School board member Carolyn Morris said he had given board members the three articles three days earlier, just before asking for a vote to send his plan to the state for approval.

“If this was all he could find, no, it’s not good enough,” Ms. Morris, the only board member who voted against it, said Friday.

Dr. Lewis said Thursday night that he would not discuss the plan with the press. He did not return a phone message Friday.

The first study is a 1992 analysis that examined alternative calendars on Pacific islands. It focused on two Hawaii elementary schools – one that had adopted a four-day plan and another that was planning to – and schools on Kosrae, the fourth-largest island group in the Federated States of Micronesia.

The Micronesian schools had switched to a four-day calendar in 1987, primarily to encourage students to use their free Fridays to keep traditional fishing and farming skills alive.

The paper had broadly positive thoughts on a four-day calendar but noted that it might not work in environments more like Lancaster and less like Lost.

“The new schedule may not work in urban areas, but it has demonstrated its effectiveness in small/rural school districts,” wrote the author, Stan Koki, a senior associate at the Pacific Region Educational Laboratory.

By the time the paper was written in 1992, a new island administration had already ended the experiment and moved the Micronesian schools back to a five-day calendar. Both Hawaiian campuses followed suit a few years later.

Many Lancaster parents didn’t trust the comparison anyway.

“Hawaii? We’re not in Hawaii. We don’t have 365 days of nice weather,” Maria Esparza, president of Lancaster’s Council of PTAs, said this week.

The second study was a 1999 article written by the superintendent of Saratoga schools, a tiny district in Arkansas not far outside Texarkana.

The superintendent, Lewis Diggs, had generally positive remarks about the four-day program he began in the 240-student district. But after one year, he said he was “certainly disappointed” that the academic gains he had anticipated had not materialized.


What Dr. Lewis did not mention is that after three years with a four-day schedule, Saratoga abandoned the plan and switched back to a five-day school week.

“It didn’t do anything to help academics,” Saratoga’s high school principal told The Christian Science Monitor in 2004. That year, the school district was shut down and merged into a neighboring district.

Ms. Morris, of Lancaster’s school board, said findings in the Saratoga district couldn’t be applied to Lancaster anyhow.

“That district only had 250 students,” she said. “We’re talking about over 6,000 students here in Lancaster. That’s not a clear comparison.”

The third study was written by a Canadian elementary school principal and focused on his unusual school system: the Gulf Islands district, which has about 1,600 students scattered across five small islands off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Lancaster officials only reproduced a small portion of the study, a master’s thesis written by Richard Bennett. But even that portion is less than enthusiastic about academic gains.

“The literature produces little substantial evidence that a change to a four-day week has either a positive or a negative effect on student achievement,” Mr. Bennett wrote.

The paper – in some of the portions not reproduced by Lancaster officials – points to other drawbacks. For example, Mr. Bennett surveyed 30 teachers in the district about what they thought of a four-day week.

Sixty percent of teachers said they were generally satisfied with the schedule. But nearly 75 percent said they couldn’t cover as much material in the four-day week as in the traditional schedule – even with longer school days.

Worth a try?

Lancaster school board member Shelia Stanmore said Friday that she read through Dr. Lewis’ research and looked up information about four-day weeks on her own. Though the research isn’t conclusive, Ms. Stanmore believes it’s worth giving it a try.

“You can look up all the research you want, but no one can predict what will happen in Lancaster,” Ms. Stanmore said. “We can always go back.”

Lancaster trustees voted 5-1 on Monday to request a schedule waiver from the state for the four-day proposal. If state gives its approval, the school board would need to vote on whether to establish a new school calendar.

District officials say the four-day schedule would improve instruction, conserve energy and boost relations with parents and the community. They also project that it could save as much as $1.9 million, which would help fill a hole in the district’s budget.

Dr. Lewis repeatedly told the crowd on Thursday that the plan was not about money, noting that the $1.9 million in projected savings from staff and utility cost reductions may not materialize.

The program would call for lengthy school days in exchange for Fridays off. Elementary students would be in class from 7:45 a.m. to 4:25 p.m. High school classes would last from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Many parents said they worry children would get into trouble on the extra day off and they’re angry about having to pay for child care each Friday.

The idea for the four-day week came from the district’s human resources director.

“We started Googling all over the place about a four-day school week,” Dr. Lewis told the crowd Thursday night. “At the end of the session, we were totally stupefied at what we thought were great instructional improvements.”

Staff writer Kathy A. Goolsby contributed to this report.