GROVE CITY, Minn. — There’s little time for chatting as students at Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City Junior-Senior High hustle between classrooms on a recent chilly morning. Just three minutes separate the bells that end and start classes — a full minute less than students had to navigate the hallways between classes a year ago.
It’s a minor inconvenience, to be sure. But it’s just one of many small changes that have added up to one big adjustment for students in this west-central Minnesota district, one of the latest in the state to switch to a four-day week to save money.
The four-day week — a hot topic in the recent gubernatorial contest and many legislative elections — is likely to find more takers as school districts continue to face tight budgets. It’s a tradeoff that more and more districts seem willing to take: cost savings in exchange for a compressed school week that alters the traditional school experience.
“The students are a lot more resilient than teachers or parents,” David Oehrlein, the K-8 principal in ACGC, says with a chuckle. “They’re adapting, and so far I haven’t received any phone calls or emails from (parents) about the length of the day.”
MACCRAY started current trend
Eleven school districts in Minnesota — all of them in rural areas — are now using the four-day model, according to the state Education Department. Nearby Maynard-Clara City-Raymond (MACCRAY) was the first, and the list also includes Blackduck, Clearbrook-Gonvick, Comfrey, Lake Superior, North Branch, Ogilvie, Onamia, Pelican Rapids and Warroad.
Gov.-elect Mark Dayton criticized such shortened weeks during the gubernatorial campaign, arguing that they shortchange students as the world is getting more competitive. Critics also note that the four-day week can be a hardship for parents, especially those who must arrange for day care or activities on the extra day their children are not in school.
Yet it’s not the first time Minnesota districts have shortened their weeks. According to the Education Department, four-day weeks were first tried during the 1970s, when the energy crisis created soaring fuel costs that cut into district budgets.
More districts are sure to jump on board. MACCRAY Superintendent Greg Schmidt kept a log of the districts that called him seeking advice about implementing a four-day week until, he says, “the number got to 35 or 40. Then I stopped keeping track.”
MACCRAY adopted the four-day schedule for the 2008-09 school year, saving $143,000 that first year. At the end of the current school year, the district will have to ask the Education Department for permission to keep the shortened schedule, and signs point to a continuation of the practice.
Parents fairly positive in survey
Last spring, parents who responded to a survey seemed to endorse the new schedule. For instance, in response to a question that asked “How has the 4 day week impacted your family life?” 54 respondents answered that it has had a “positive impact” or “no impact” while 12 answered that it has “created problems for our family life.”
Meanwhile, in ACGC — whose Grove City headquarters are about 80 miles west of Minneapolis — officials expect the move to shave at least $65,000 off of the district’s $8 million budget. More than half of the savings will be in fuel costs for buses that roam the district’s 352 square miles.
The district decided to act after a steady decline in state funding, which is based largely on the number of students in a district. Since 2003, the amount of money the state has given the district for each student has decreased about 14 percent, according to the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020.
On top of that, enrollment has dropped. The district had 87 students in its graduating class in 2002; this spring, 65 students are slated to graduate.
To make up the lost revenue, the amount of money per student the district collects in local property taxes has doubled.
Typical day from 8:20 a.m. to 3:50 p.m.
This year, a typical day at the junior-senior high begins at 8:20 a.m. and ends at 3:50 p.m. A year ago, school started at 8:35 a.m. and ended at 2:55 p.m. Class periods are now 58 minutes long rather than 48 minutes.
School Board chairwoman Judy Raske says the longer days can be taxing for students, especially those on the far edges of the district who may get on the bus around 7:15 a.m. and return home around 5 p.m. On the other hand, she says some teachers have told her they are further along in their curriculum than they were a year ago under the standard five-day week.
Instruction time will actually increase by 518 minutes (about 8½ hours) this year over last, according to district figures.
“Districts will have to look at alternative ways with these state budget shortfalls,” Raske says. “This is a way to do it without a significant loss of contact time (between teachers and students) or programs.”
State tests administered in the spring could shed light on whether the changes have affected student performance in the classroom.
“At that point, we will evaluate it,” Raske says. “But I would say that if things work well, we probably wouldn’t go back to five days.”
Gregg Aamot is a former newsman for The Associated Press and the author of “The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees.” He is currently teaching at Ridgewater College and Southwest Minnesota State University.