Four-day school weeks garner interest in midstate

WARNER ROBINS — More school systems in Georgia are implementing, or at least considering, four-day school weeks as more education funding is cut from the state budget.

Peach County made headlines last fall when it decided to hold classes Tuesdays through Fridays to account for a nearly $800,000 budget shortfall. Now, the option has taken hold with several school systems across the state, mostly among smaller school districts, including Wilcox and Dodge counties.

Last year, Georgia legislators passed House Bill 193, which called on schools to “provide for a 180 day school year or the equivalent thereof.” With that, school systems were given more flexibility to implement alternative calendars. Previously, the State Board of Education defined the school year for certified staff as 190 days, or 1,520 hours.

Peach County officials have estimated a savings of $313,000 in transportation and utilities costs, as well as fewer disciplinary actions and teacher absences as a result of the four-day week.

Since the decision was made, Peach County has become an example of the four-day week for systems across the state.

C.B. Mathis, assistant superintendent of operations in Peach County, said he has received calls from at least 20 school systems seeking information about it.

When schools representatives call Mathis, he tries to give them as much information as possible to anticipate different issues, from how the move would affect transportation employees to getting the local community on board to provide child care for the extra day off.

“We’ve already been down that road. Anything we can do to make it simpler ... would be a benefit to that county,” he said.

School systems also need to consider the circumstances and needs of its population.

“What’s working for us may not run for them,” he said. “I don’t want them to hit hurdles they can’t see.”

Ultimately, student achievement, as well as the discretion of the school board, will be the deciding factor in extending the four-day week beyond this school year.

“The main outcome will be how the kids will do on the CRCT (Criterion-Referenced Competency Test). Whether we saved $200,000 or $800,000, it wouldn’t matter what the school system has done,” he said.

Mathis said Peach County is addressing the issue with more tutoring for students and hard-working teachers.

“It’s a test. We don’t know, but we’re trying it,” he said.

Wilcox, Dodge follow in Peach’s footsteps

Following in Peach’s footsteps, the Wilcox County Board of Education approved a four-day school week for the 2010-11 school year at its January school board meeting, with the expectation the system would save about $100,000 from the move.

Wilcox Superintendent Steve J. Smith cited state budget cuts as a major factor in adopting the four-day week.

Because Wilcox is a high-poverty area, Smith said he is concerned about students receiving proper nutrition on the extra days they are not in school. Wilcox applied for a grant to offer its students supplemental meals, as well as an after-school program to about 220 students.

While the school system received negative feedback from the public at first, Smith said people have become more understanding of the decision.

Dodge County is also among schools in Middle Georgia considering a four-day school week and is surveying local residents to gauge their interest. The Board of Education will discuss the issue in a work session Thursday.

After Wilcox County announced its plans to adopt a four-day school week, Dodge Superintendent Darrel May said the board decided to seek public input.

The school board plans to develop its calendar for the upcoming school year at its March session.

“We’re doing what most other boards of education in the state of Georgia (are) doing: looking at budget cuts and meeting the needs of our students,” May said.

Across the state, other school districts have taken similar measures. Murray County adopted this year a 160-day school calendar with longer school days, while other systems, such as Haralson and Polk counties, have listened to presentations from Peach representatives on the matter.

While local school administrators promote the positive aspects of the four-day week, others find the trend somewhat problematic.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators issued a statement in January raising concerns about instructional time for struggling students, the effectiveness of a longer school day and ramifications for bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

“We strongly encourage systems that are considering this option to fully discuss and review with their communities the points we have raised. It is understandable, but no less regrettable, that we are moving from how best to educate our students to how cheaply we can do it,” the statement said.

Gale F. Gaines’ study “Focus on the School Calendar: The Four-Day School Week,” produced by the Southern Regional Educational Board, outlines the use of the four-day school week among systems in Southern states, as well as its advantages and challenges.

Gaines said in the study that the effects of the four-day week on student achievement are inconclusive from the information that is available.

“There is a decided lack of evidence that the four-day week helps or hurts student achievement — anecdotal information seems to point merely to a ‘lack of harm’ where student achievement is concerned,” the study states.

Despite this, officials in many school districts feel adopting a four-day school week is the only option they have as education funding continues to be reduced.

Peach officials said the four-day school week has saved 39 jobs in the system, and other districts feel similarly pinched.

“With state cuts, we’ve been backed into a corner,” Wilcox’s Smith said. “We don’t have a choice with this.”

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.