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Districts say shortened school weeks give families more flexibility in scheduling appointments for their children and taking family time off together.

According to the South Dakota Department of Education, 34 school districts, or nearly 23 percent of the 149 districts statewide, are maintaining a four-day school week in the current academic year. That’s a jump from 9.23 percent in 2008-09.

Only five other states have more than 20 percent of their districts on the four-day calendar, according to a study published in the National Council of State Legislatures magazine. Nationally, more than 560 districts in 25 states have gone to the calendar, according to the NCSL.

Most of the districts are small and rural hoping to save money on transportation and other operating expenses, but some urban schools are also making the change.

“In most instances, it’s purely a matter of geography,” said Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. “The more West River you go and the more rural you get, the geography lends itself to more costs transporting students. In some instances, kids are on buses an hour each way and budgets are still really, really tight. If you are not driving buses on Fridays, you are saving on staff and gasoline.”

Many South Dakota district administrators say the amount of actual savings from the calendar change hasn’t been as much as anticipated, but added benefits of increased time for students to work with teachers, time for teacher training and preparation, and other benefits have made the choice a good one.

Transportation costs

On average, schools practicing the four-day week hold classes 45-60 minutes longer each day than South Dakota schools on the traditional five-day schedule, administrators say, allowing them to stay well above the mandatory minimum hours of instruction required by the state.

Pogany said the number of districts employing the four-day week is not likely to significantly increase in coming years. But those districts that have opted for the shortened week have realized added benefits, he said.

“We probably won’t see a marked increase in the near-future,” Pogany said. “We’ve witnessed districts on a four-day week using Fridays for remedial days, allowing students with needs to catch up, as well as (time for) teacher training and in-service for staff.”

Pogany also said rural districts also have witnessed benefits from the four-day week tied to athletics, where some teams travel long distances, often on Fridays, for match-ups against other teams.

“If you’re in Faith and have to travel to Edgemont for a game, that’s a long bus trip,” he said. “It could mean a half a day away from the classroom. By not having Friday classes, those districts are able to retain classroom time.”

Opponents say the longer days can be hard for younger students. And for low-income families, finding quality Friday day care and providing sufficient meals on the days the students aren’t in school also can be challenging.

Custer was first

Custer was the first school district in South Dakota to transition to a four-day week in 1995, primarily because the southern Black Hills community believed it would realize significant cost savings. But that’s not really been the case, according to Mark Naugle, superintendent.

“Does it save money? No, it doesn’t,” said Naugle. “For us, the last number I ever heard was it was minimal, less than $100,000 of savings per year. It’s more of a quality of life issue, and what works best for your district. What we found in Custer is something that works for us and that’s why we continue to do it.”

Naugle, a Custer native who oversees a district with 75 teachers and 950 students, said the four-day week is all his teachers and students have ever known. And, by and large, they like the flexibility of the shortened week, which allows parents to schedule things like doctor's appointments on Fridays without having to excuse their children from class.

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Jennifer Boomsma-Kelsey is principal at Wolsey-Wessington High School, where the four-day school calendar has been in effect for years.

When the district considered switching from a five-day to a four-day week, Boomsma-Kelsey said several community meetings were conducted where advocates provided economic arguments for the shortened school week. But others presented research that showed benefits from eliminating the need for early dismissal on in-service days, providing extra time on Fridays for students in need of help to meet with teachers, and even allowing teachers time to talk to each other about common concerns.

“I think our Fridays are utilized really well for students who need extra time with teachers, particularly in 7th through 12th grades,” she said. “Staff is there from 8 a.m. to noon three of the four Fridays every month, allowing students time to come get individualized help with their teacher, or if they have been sick and have missed school, they can meet with teachers and catch up.”

The only downside Boomsma-Kelsey could identify with the four-day school week might be tied to younger students who find it more difficult to retain their lessons over three-day weekends.

Parents see pros, cons

Heidi Stroud is a 38-year-old title paraprofessional with the Iroquois School District and the mother of a high school junior, eighth-grader and fifth-grader. She coaches junior varsity volleyball. Her husband, Keith, works for a steel company in Huron and serves as mayor of Iroquois.

Stroud, who grew up with a five-day school week, said her family prefers the four-day schedule, allowing them to schedule doctor’s appointments and take long three-day weekends to camp without her children having to miss classes.

“It’s really great,” she said. “My children love it. If we have a week where we have to go five days, they are crabby. And, lately we’ve been making up snow days on Fridays.”

But more importantly, Stroud said those extended weekends have allowed her family time to bond and enjoy each other’s company in ways she never imagined.

“I think people these days aren’t as family-oriented as they once were, and those extra Fridays off give us an opportunity to camp with the kids — just extra time to spend together,” she said.

Breanna Schaefer and her husband, John, of Belle Fourche, have three children, Gabe, 9, who is in third grade, Adam, 6, a kindergartener, and Sawyer, 2. Five years ago the Shaefers moved to Belle Fourche from Miles City, Montana, and a year ago, Breanna became the city’s finance officer. John works as an assistant manager at a Spearfish hardware store.

As the working parents of young children, Breanna said Belle Fourche’s four-day school week has presented them with some challenges they didn’t initially envision.

“I know there are two schools of thought on this,” she said. “But, as a parent who works five days a week 8 to 5, we have to figure out what to do with three kids. It does cause an issue, particularly finding someone willing to care for a child Gabe’s age. And, of course, there’s also the cost. Many day cares don’t want to take a kid for one day a week, because they are full.”

Regardless of the trials of being a working parent in a school system with a four-day week, Breanna said her children truly love the schedule and she sees benefits from the system.

“My kids really like it,” she said. “When they have a three-day weekend, they seem to be a little more re-charged when Monday rolls around. And, honestly, I truly believe Belle Fourche has one of the most top-notch education systems in the state of South Dakota. Even with four days, I believe my children are receiving an excellent education.”

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