JASPER — First it was the block schedule with 90-minute classes that meet every other day instead of 45-minute periods every day. Now it's four-day school weeks with longer school days.
School administrators across the country are on the lookout for innovative ways to better teach students with shrinking state revenues and the Jasper R-5 School District is no exception.
Jasper Superintendent Rick Stark recently presented a proposal to a skeptical Board of Education for a four-day school week that he said would have advantages and disadvantages over the district's current block scheduling, which has been in place since the mid-1990s.
The board took no action and seemed to be leaning against the move, but they instructed Stark to continue to gather information for them.
“The discussion was, do we want to stay with the block schedule or are we looking at possibly going back to a traditional schedule,” Stark said. “There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of schedules. A lot of school districts have gone to block schedule and then gone back to the traditional schedule, then several schools have stayed with the block.”
Stark said some districts in the area have gone to shortened school years, with school in session only 166 school days instead of the traditional 175 days.
Then Stark heard about other school districts that were moving to a four-day week.
Making the change
Stark said he modeled his proposed four-day-a-week calendar on one from the Albany school district in northeast Missouri near Maryville.
“I put calendars together based on the current schedule and based on a four-day week,” Stark said. “What they do is they have every Monday off during the school year and they lengthened their school day. What I did was lengthened the school day by 48 minutes and then you go Tuesday-Friday. By doing that, over the entire calendar year, you actually increasing the number of hours students attend by about four hours, so you're not losing instructional time, but there are disadvantages to this as well.”
John Rinehart, the first-year superintendent at the Albany School District, said he inherited the four-day schedule, which was adopted last year under his predecessor, Brian Prewitt, who is now superintendent at the Lone Jack school district east of Kansas City.
Rinehart said he really didn’t know whether to be concerned about the unusual schedule when he applied for the job but “obviously it didn’t scare me away.”
“I knew of other school districts that were moving to the four-day week,” Rinehart said. “Montgomery County has adopted it and so has Harrisburg. People here thought there would be more public concern about having to find daycare on Mondays, but to my knowledge, we haven’t had many complaints about it.
Page 2 of 3 - “A lot of parents seem to like having the extra day off if they want to get out of town for the weekend.”
Rinehart said the district has saved some money by only having to run busses or heat and cool the entire school only four days a week instead of five days.
He said the big benefit from a superintendent’s perspective has been more time for professional development for teachers.
“We have 152 student days a year and our teachers are contracted to be in the school 171 days,” Rinehart said. “That gives us 19 days to work on professional development and crunch data. At my old school we would let out about an hour early on Wednesdays to do some of this, but we never had time to go into any great substance as far as professional development.”
Concerns in Jasper
Stark said disadvantaged children could suffer if the district cuts back to four days a week. He said there are some children who are better off at school and at home, including children that rely on the school for their best meals of the day.
“That's 20 fewer days that they would be attending school and that's less contact time with teachers so that would definitely be a concern,” Stark said. “Child care would be a concern, your vo-tech students would still have to come to school on Mondays.”
Stark said he has been, and still is, skeptical of the idea, but he's also seen good things in the concept.
“If you had asked me two or three years ago if I had any thoughts of going to a four-day school-week, I would have been totally against it,” Stark said. “After talking to the Albany superintendent last year and discussing it with other superintendents of districts that have gone to shortened calendars, there are some advantages to it. You can definitely offer more hours of professional development for your teachers. You can eliminate all your early-dismissal days, which anyone in a school district will tell you, your early-release days are not your most productive days in a school. You can schedule your parent-teacher conferences on those Mondays. What they saw at Albany was improved attendance with the staff and students.”
Stark said the plan can save some money as well.
“You can save on transportation, you can save on food service, you don't use substitute teachers as much, and I suppose there would be some savings as far as utilities,” Stark said. “My opinion is you don not want to make a change like this just for financial reasons. You want to look at if this is going to benefit the students and how? Is this going to benefit the staff and community and how?”
Page 3 of 3 - Board and public opinion
Stark said he and the board would hold public meetings to let the community weigh in on it before any final decision was made.
“The board was definitely shying away from this and I respect that,” Stark said. “I'm not 100 percent buying in on it either. Part of my job as superintendent is to research the information and get as much input as possible from both sides of the issue as possible and then have a board that's informed so they can make an informed decision. If the decision is to not go in that direction, I'm fine with that.
“We've done a lot of good things here at the school. Our principals have initiated a lot of changes, our curriculum coordinator has done a lot of things with team meetings as far as data-analysis and that type of thing, so we're doing a lot of things as far as instructional improvement that I'm very happy with right now and we want to continue that.”
Rinehart said whether schools use four-day weeks or five-day weeks or they use the eight-block schedule or traditional seven-hour days, good teachers are the key to a good education.
“I think the jury is out on whether this makes a big difference or is the best thing academically for kids,” Rinehart said. “I suspect if you have good teachers that will push kids and engage them to learn, whether they have a four- or five- or six-day week, they will get kids to learn. Education is a people business and good people make a good education.”