May 18, 2006

Some US Schools Cancel Fridays Due to Fuel Costs

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho -- After homework and household chores, Bianca Sozzi intends to spend most Fridays next school year pursuing the pastimes of the average American adolescent: listening to music, talking to friends on the phone or playing computer games.

"It will be like another weekend day," said Sozzi.

Come fall, all Fridays will mark the beginning of a three-day break for Sozzi and 1,029 other public school students in this small Idaho community.

In parts of the American West such as Salmon, sharply higher fuel prices have prompted a growing number of school districts to save money by shortening the school week to four days.

School systems in such remote, sparsely populated areas, where school bus routes can stretch across many miles and take hours to complete, say far higher transport and other energy-related expenses are squeezing already shrinking budgets.

The number of states sanctioning districts with four-day school weeks has at least doubled since a survey by the National School Boards Association in 2003 showed nine states and roughly a hundred districts adopting the measure.

"Rural districts are really struggling to keep things going and high fuel costs aren't helping," said Lynn Schow, superintendent of the Oneida School District in southeast Idaho.

To meet state guidelines for the minimum number of class hours, districts on a reduced weekly schedule have extended the school day by more than an hour.

Districts that have opted for shorter weeks say the total number of instruction hours remains basically the same despite what appears to be a total weekly reduction in school time of at least an hour. The hour or so difference is the time students would spend at recess and lunch, activities not tallied as educational hours.

The trend runs counter to a national push to lengthen the time students spend in school after models in Asian and European countries.

"The general pattern in this country is for students to be engaged in learning more rather than less time during a week," said Tim Waters, head of Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a regional education lab in Denver.

Critics say the measure places a burden on working families and that lengthening the school day without a corresponding change in teaching style may affect performance, particularly in younger students.

Salmon nurse Toni Hardin, a single mom, says her budget is tight enough without paying for daycare on Fridays for her 6-year-old daughter. She and other low-income families also will lose access one day a week to the free meals schools provide for their children.

"I have real mixed feelings about it," she said.


Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, said the challenge of a shorter school week that makes for longer school days is for educators to keep students intellectually stimulated.

"It's a long day for young kids," he said. "It will be up to teachers to keep kids interested. If you're doing drill-and-kill or rote teaching, students won't stay engaged."

But schools switching to four-day weeks have reported broad support from teachers, parents and students.

Board members in the Oneida School District this week voted to postpone for a year a decision about switching to a four-day week, a move that would save $109,000 annually. If the board approves the change, it would bring to eight out of 114 the number of public school districts in Idaho with a shortened week.

The school district in Victor, Montana this week became the first in that state to adopt a four-day week after studying positive reviews from schools in Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming.

In addition to savings from idling buses and contract workers one day a week, school systems reported increased attendance, with students and teachers tending to schedule personal appointments on the weekday off. Districts also have sought to stage sports events on that day to keep student athletes in class.

Bear Lake School District in the farming community of Paris, Idaho last year moved to a four-day week. A recent survey of the school system showed 90.9 percent in favor, said superintendent Cliff Walters.