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How Rural Idaho Schools Navigate the Four-Day School Week

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- Left to right: Marilyn Whitney, Dr. Paul Hill, Julie VanOrden and Norm Stewart -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Left to right: Marilyn Whitney, Dr. Paul Hill, Julie VanOrden and Norm Stewart
A student attending classes in a rural school district with a four-day school week will lose up to a full year of days in school between kindergarten and the 12th grade, but 42 out of Idaho's 115 school districts have slashed days from their school weeks to save money. 

That's why more than a dozen school administrators and stakeholders from across the Gem State gathered Wednesday afternoon at Trailhead to hear a panel of speakers explain the pros and cons of cutting days from their school weeks. On that panel were Dr. Paul Hill of the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI), Marsing School District Superintendent Norm Stewart and Idaho Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, who's vice chair of the House Education Committee. With possible school district savings at 2-3 percent, the consensus of the panel was that trimming days from school weeks is inadvisable. 

"If money is the whole reason [a school district would transition to a four-day week], there are lots of other ways to save money," Hill said. 

But state education funds have not yet returned to pre-Great Recession levels, and some districts haven't passed education levies in years, leaving communities with few options, and trimming days is one of the ways districts are balancing their obligations to educate students with financial realities. So far, some districts have been more successful than others at navigating four-day weeks by scheduling professional development for teachers and staff for Fridays—the cut day of choice—and lengthening school days.

The panelists agreed that planning and having realistic expectations for savings helped make the transition successful. That includes facilitating community conversations about what reducing the number of school days means, professional development for teachers and staff, and researching what strategies other school districts have used to transition successfully.

"You can't get the advantages by backing into them," Hill said.

The four-day week comes with additional challenges. Low-income students rely on free and reduced-cost meals provided at schools, and their effect hasn't been studied on graduation, college application or remedial education rates. The paucity of research on how this money-saving strategy affects students in the long run concerns VanOrden.

"This is where data becomes pretty important," she said.

When districts transition to four-day weeks, most faculty and staff salaries remain unchanged. According to VanOrden and Stewart, savings came from cutting work days to some staff, some transportation expenses and reducing reliance on substitute teachers. The benefits have been mixed: High school sports teams travel less, but Stewart said parents like the flexibility a four-day week offers them. And while students spend less time in the classroom, Stewart indicated that professional development days and the reduction in classroom hours has compelled teachers to be more organized and efficient with class time. 

"How much of the school week is actually fluff? We were allowing kids to not get the most out of their education," he said.