FORT VALLEY -- Peach County drew national attention when its school board dropped a day from the district’s school week.
The 2009 decision to hold classes during just four days each week was touted as a way for the district to cut operating costs but brought criticism, questions, and eventually, some copying.
Two years later, school board Chairman Jamie Johnson is giving a word of caution to other school districts that may want to adopt the shorter week as Peach County officials rethink the decision and consider a return to the normal five-day school week.
“We have asked Superintendent (Joe Ann) Denning to tell us exactly what is it going to take for us to go back to five days,” Johnson said. “As of now, we haven’t gotten the whole report and all the information just yet. But we do know as of this year, we are losing funds versus actually saving funds.”
Particularly, funding is down in transportation, for which the state gives the district a certain amount of money for a set number of travel days. It is also down in the lunchrooms, for which the district receives reimbursement per student per day.
“With cutting that day out, you don’t get that money,” Johnson said.
Former Superintendent Susan Clark cited savings of more than $400,000 in operational costs in the first year the four-day week was implemented, as she defended the abbreviated schedule in March.
Other than the energy saved by not opening school doors until Tuesday each week, Johnson said he’s not sure how the savings figures were calculated.
Now, he said, Denning is working to pinpoint exactly how much district officials thought they were saving and how much is actually being lost. Denning was unavailable for comment. However, during a July public forum, Denning -- then a candidate for superintendent -- said she would be interested in exploring the possibility of returning to a five-day week.
Johnson said he hopes to have the financial figures within the next couple of months, so the board can try to make a decision as early as January. If the five-day school week is adopted, the change could take effect as soon as next school year, he said.
A ‘half-baked’ decision
The current board narrowly approved the 2011-12 school calendar -- with a third consecutive year of four-day weeks -- by a 3-2 decision in March.
Johnson wanted to consider other calendar options, voting against the measure along with fellow board member Virginia Dixon.
But the idea of a four-day school week has been a topic of contention since its conception.
Jody Usry, chairman of the board when the issue surfaced in 2009, initially asked if the decision might be “half-baked,” Johnson said Wednesday.
Still, the board voted to adopt the Tuesday through Friday schedule, despite, as Johnson recalls, not being consulted during the planning process leading up to the decision.
During the summer leading up to the 2009-10 school year, the district received numerous cuts in state funding, so Clark called an emergency meeting to bring a proposal to the board.
“She pretty much made the proposal to us that if we did not make the change, that we were not going to be able to operate,” he said.
Despite being unsure of making such a major change just weeks before the start of the year, Johnson voted in favor of the four-day week in 2009.
“If I could go back in time and change it, I would vote no,” he said Wednesday. “I can go back and tell Jody I guess it was half-baked.”
Some improvements made
Since the switch, the district has seen improvements in attendance and student discipline statistics -- two points Clark made when defending the four-day week in March.
Also, some parents have grown to like the three-day weekend, which allows them more time with their children.
Tamye Fitzgerald, whose two children attend Byron Elementary School, said she loves the extra day.
“Here they don’t have a chance to do field trips, so we do that,” said Fitzgerald, a stay-at-home mom and treasurer of the Byron Elementary parent-teacher organization.
She and a few other parents have formed a small group that gets together most Mondays for activities -- educational and social -- with the children.
“We work on homework with them and practice things that they may not be able to do in the classroom, like social etiquette.”
While she understands some working parents have concerns about what to do with their children on Mondays, Fitzgerald said the Byron community has come together to offer options for care and supervision.
A former math teacher, Fitzgerald said there shouldn’t be concern about the academic aspect of the shorter week, because there is generally plenty of down time in a school week. The four-day week simply cuts that out.
“I don’t feel like my children are suffering being on a four-day school week,” she said.
Student achievement a concern
As with any change, switching to the shorter school week came with its bumps for Peach County schools.
Last year, the state Department of Education waived graduation requirements for nearly 1,000 Peach County students who did not receive the required number of seat hours per course to meet graduation requirements during the 2009-10 school year.
The district tweaked the school year calendar -- adding days to both ends of semesters -- to make sure students now get the required class hours, but Johnson said he’d rather return to five days than have to worry about seat time.
Student achievement is also a concern of his.
“We know we don’t have the data to prove that just yet, but we’re suspecting that with us having the dip in our testing scores this year that this may be a result of losing that day of instruction,” Johnson said.
He later added, “If you’re expecting a child to learn and expecting a child to excel, cutting a day out is not the way to do it.”
Peach County’s struggles with the four-day system may not signal a death sentence to all districts that try the shorter week, Johnson said.
While it may not work for Peach County, it may work for a larger district, he said.
Fitzgerald said she would like Peach County to give it a little more time. Other school districts have made the four-day week work for years, she said.
“It takes tweaking,” Fitzgerald said. “You have to give, I think, enough years to figure it out. You need some consistency to get things right.”
She said if tests scores decline, she wouldn’t want them to keep the four-day schedule just because it works for her, but she said she would want board members to consider other potential factors that could lead to poor performance.
“I know we’ve got good board members, and they will take all of that into consideration,” she said.
Despite Fitzgerald’s feeling on the topic, the board has heard from community members, teachers and even students that they would like to have Monday added back into the school week, Johnson said.
“We’re trying to make sure that we are looking at how it will affect the school district, the children, the parents, the community as a whole,” he said.
If the board decides to revert back to a five-day week, Johnson said the process wouldn’t be particularly difficult.
“I don’t think it would be much of a difficulty including the Monday versus taking the Monday out,” he said.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 256-9751.