A discussion on four-day school weeks was heard at the regular meeting of Sidney Public Schools Board of Trustees, held Monday, Oct. 14.
High school principal Brent Sukut presented data from a survey conducted with students (173 responses), community members/parents (538 responses) and certified/classified staff (57 responses).
“In looking at the surveys, what was interesting to me is they actually all came out fairly close,” Sukut said. “I would have thought the student survey would have come out a little bit differently. But they all were right around 63-67 percent in favor of.”
Concerns of a four-day school week varied depending on the group surveyed. Employee concerns included transportation coordination, loss of hours for some employees, length of school year calendar, length of school day and meals for students on Fridays. Community/parent survey concerns added amount of homework, student achievement and child care for children on Fridays.
Sukut said Martin Morales was confident transportation could be coordinated effectively.
“He said there are a number of ways you could take care of that,” Sukut said. “He was not concerned with it in the least bit.”
Pros and cons of four-day school week models are largely anecdotal, but Dr. Tim Tharp from Savage did his doctoral dissertation on the matter in 2014. His research studied standardized test scores of MontCas, which ultimately fell after a the first few years of steady scores. Sukut referenced the study in his discussion with the school board, but Tharp was not in attendance. While Tharp’s research is now five years old, it’s one of the most recent comprehensive data assessments of four-day school weeks.
“I did a population study. I think it has a strength over a lot of other research that was done around the same time,” Tharp said. “Other ones did sample sizes.”
Anecdotally, schools that saw success with the four-day model have strong leadership from administration and a lot of community support. However, over time, performance of students and staff seemed to slip. One answer Tharp proposed was the Hawthorne effect, which is the alteration of behavior by subjects of a study because they are aware they are being studied, but that’s not the only proposed answer for falling performance over a longer period.
“I think there are two reasons,” Tharp said. “I think people start to get complacent and shift back to some previous practices. The second concern I have is that the accumulated days missed of instruction start to add up.”
Montana Legislature has allowed some flexibility with scheduling, as school years are determined by hours instead of days. While hours can be added to days, Tharp said, that doesn’t make up for lost classroom time over the whole year and eventually over a student’s whole school career.
“I think the accumulated amount of days start to make a difference after a number of years,” he said.
During the school board meeting, a point in favor of the new schedule was employee recruitment and retention, which has become an increasing concern at rural schools in Montana and for Sidney as smaller area schools transition to the four-day model. While the four-day model has found varying degrees of success at smaller schools, Tharp said Sidney would be the largest student population to adapt it in the state. That fact was confirmed by Montana Office of Public Instruction Director of Communications Dylan Klapmeier, who said in an email, “Sidney would be by far the largest district.”
Student population as of the school board meeting on Oct. 14 sat at 1,3337. During the 2018-19 school year, 139 schools in Montana operated on a four-day week, according to the Office of Public Instruction.
The model for rural locations has perks for students and parents, like travel for activities on Fridays. Hockey athletes miss almost every Friday during their season. It would also allow parents to schedule appointments on Fridays. Board chairman Ben Thorgersen pointed out most doctors aren’t around on Fridays for appointments in Sidney, which Sukut said answers the argument students come out ill-prepared for the traditional workplace.
“It counters the argument that we are enabling our kids to think four-day weeks aren’t a reality,” Sukut said. “I will tell you, trying to get ahold of people in Sidney on Fridays is not easy.”
Another concern was added homework and weekend work for students.
“If we were to go to something like this, we would need to change our handbooks in terms of how we divvy out homework,” Sukut said. “We cannot make Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays days for just homework and group work.”
Parents of younger students expressed concern about limited childcare options in town.
“The one thing that’s tough, especially when you’re looking at it from the school standpoint, is you want to make sure that you’re very conscious of community needs and things they’re looking for,” Sukut said. “There are a lot of people who came out and said, ‘What are we supposed to do with our kids on Fridays?’ Those ones are kind of tough. We’re a school. We have to be careful at how we look at some of those.”
Superintendent Monte Silk said implementation of such a schedule would require meticulous groundwork with teachers.
“My recommendation is that now they took a lot from each of these perspectives — students, community, the teachers. Particularly the teachers. It’s really important morale-wise,” Silk said. “Ask every question and have the the answer so there’s no surprises if we go to a four-day week for teachers.”
School board trustees agreed to allow Sukut to continue moving forward with research.
“I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to be honest with you,” Thorgersen said. “It’s going to be an adjustment. It was an adjustment with the 2:10 release on Wednesdays.”
In other news
After updating its tobacco policies, Sidney Public School District received a certificate of excellence from Office of Public Instruction, recognizing them as a tobacco free school district of excellence.
The complete donation of $435,000 was received from the Rob and Melanie Walton-Lowman Foundation for the sports complex.
The transfer of two sophomore students from Fairview to Sidney was approved.
New hires were approved for Emma Stevenson, Central School custodian; Jessica Dockweiler, high school special education aide; Emily Keegan, middle school girls basketball coach; and Raelee Hemline, middle school cheer coach.
A change to bus route three was approved by the board for an additional student on the route.