Sidney Public Schools

A resistant crowd gathered at the Sidney School Board meeting Monday, Nov. 11, to discuss the potential for a four-day school week. Sidney would be the first class A school in Montana to adopt the nontraditional model, leaving concerned parents and citizens wondering what the motives are. While the views of those at the meeting varied greatly, the discussion remained respectful and insightful.

“How does this benefit my child specifically?” asked Mars Harper, a parent of a third grader in Sidney. “How does this transition benefit him or all the other students? I certainly don’t see how it’s more of a benefit to switching to this four-day week than it is to continue in the traditional five-day week. If that’s not the case, has that been sufficiently answer to the parents?”

Harper inquired about available research on school districts similar in size to Sidney. The topic of the survey distributed by Sidney Public Schools via social media was addressed by Harper, who said when he finished the survey, he was prompted to fill it out again, skewing the validity of the results.

“It makes me question the survey itself. If I can fill out the survey 15 times because I want it, what happens to the guy who filled it out once because he’s just trying to be honest,” Harper said.

Brent Sukut, high school principal, said most of Harper’s concerns have already been answered.

“I think that the majority of those questions have been addressed,” Sukut said. “This is probably the fourth or fifth time we’ve gone through it. But we certainly can address those. The whole premise of this is teacher recruitment and teacher retention and looking at the reasons why we are losing quality teachers in our district.”

Because Sidney is surrounded by smaller schools who have adopted the four-day model, the district has lost an estimated eight teachers to Fairview in the last two years. Middle school teacher Lorraine Allen said the four-day week is a big incentive and is consistently seen as a reason why teachers are leaving Sidney.

“We’re competing all around us with four-day work weeks and that’s hard to say, ‘Come to our district,’ when they could as easily go to a district with four days,” she said. “If we were somewhere else in the other part of the state and we weren’t competing with four-day weeks, we might not be having this discussion.”

Kali Godfrey with the Richland County Health Department asked the board if other recruitment and retention strategies have been investigated and how the conclusion came down to a four-day school week.

“We have tried lots of different things, to be honest with you,” said Ben Thogersen, board chair. “The same thing keeps coming up. We just don’t get the applicants… We’re trying to do things to make people want to come here. We do updates to the school. We remodel schools. We built an extra gym. We built a brand new track. We moved our administrators out of Central to give the teachers more space to teach. We’re really trying to come up with ideas of better ways to educate our students… and bring in good quality teachers that want to stay here.”

Carl Dynneson, assistant principal at the high school, said the school district is working with Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Elaine Stedman to help alleviate some of the community strain once the 1,362 students in the district don’t have an assigned place to be on Fridays.

“We’ve reached out to Boys and Girls Club from the get-go actually,” Dynneson said, comparing a four-day school week to the long weekends the district has now. “Communities figure out how to handle it. Communities around us that have gone to a four-day week have implemented different Friday days.”

Dynneson said staff is often onsite to accommodate some students on Fridays in school districts like Fairview and Wolf Point.

“Boys and Girls Club is ready to be part of that solution,” he said. “Their new building right now can hold 350 kids. They are not ready to take that on with the staff that they have, but we sat down at the table and we’ve lined out potentials of what that would look like. If it increases more than that, Central School is right across the street, lends itself to us coming up with a solution.”

Stedman was unavailable for comment this week.

Brittney Petersen, a citizen in attendance, asked the board if the four-day week model was something they would be willing to adopt on a trial basis and then revisiting the topic as a board.

“Since it sounds like when I talked to OPI that we’d be the first class A school in Montana to try this out, that we’d be kind of paving the road. So maybe there’d be some value in taking a pause after two to three years to look at academic performance, maybe gauge how the community and parents are dealing with it,” Petersen said.

Superintendent Monte Silk said in his research of Colorado schools who have gone to a four-day week, he found one of the benefits to be the ability to provide enrichment and remediation for students on Fridays. That brought up another issue from an attending citizen.

“If the solution to having your kids perform academically on a four-day program is to provide a fifth day of education, why not just leave it with five-days of education?” the citizen asked.

Middle school teacher Lorraine Allen again provided some insight, explaining that with the current schedule, teachers are rushed through lesson plans and students are taking almost all of their work home. With the new model, she said there would be more face-time between teachers and students to get work done in class.

“If you go to a four-day where you have longer time, the students in front of you put to practice that [information],” Allen said.

It was noted several times in the meeting a four-day model would fall within a handful of hours of the current district schedule. So while each class will be slightly longer during the day, the class hours over a school year will be similar to current classroom times.

School Board Trustee Kelly Dey made a motion to move forward with the four-day week. After attempting to amend her motion to state the final decision would be revisited in April, there was pushback from school district employees in attendance.

“I wanted clarification on the motion too… Brent and Carl have done a lot of work on this and they have said multiple times we are not going to tell our teachers to put in all this work if we’re not going to do it,” said Chris Lee, activities director. “Me personally, I’m for this, and I would have a ton of work to do, but I need to know now. The teachers need to know now if we’re doing this next year. We can’t say we might do it and then in April, ‘We’re not going to do it.’”

Dey clarified the intent of her motion a couple times during the meeting, stating this was an attempt to be proactive and not reactive to the problems facing the district. Sukut and Silk both said the decision to move forward with the four-day school week planning was based on a large amount of mutual trust between the board and administrators.

“We need to get all these pacing charts done. Part of the trust is, if this thing is not ready to go in April or in May, we’re going to tell you we’re not ready to go,” Sukut said.

With those reassurances in place, Dey stuck to her original motion to implement a four-day school week. Sidney School Board Trustees Randy Iverson, David Seitz, Kelly Dey and Lisa Gorder voted in favor of the four-day weeks. Thogersen and Craig Steinbeisser voted against. The motion was carried 4-2.

After the meeting, Silk said there were specific steps to take to implement the model.

“Administratively we are going to be developing purposed bell schedules, class schedules and a school year calendar,” he said. “We will be meeting with the calendar committee to develop a school year calendar that will include total student hours and total teacher hours for the schools.”

The calendar committee will present the proposed schedule for the 2020-21 school year to the School Board at least by January, but Silk said it could be as early as December. The committee has been sitting on an unofficial calendar this school year, waiting for board approval to move forward with the details.

In other news

New hires approved by the board include Shari Conn, West Side part-time custodian; Lukas Johnson, middle school boys basketball coach; Katelyn Mocko, middle school study hall aide; Shane Monsen, high school assistant boys basketball coach; Kay Trail, substitute and nursing services; June Decker, West Side instructional aid; and June Decker, West Side instructional aide.

Silk reported total school enrollment, including the districts preschool program, is up to 1,362.

The purchase of replacement cameras at the high school was approved for the price of $61,954.

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