By Jay Chilton, CIJ
Nearly 100 Oklahoma public school districts use a cumulative-hours-based schedule, allowing them to employ a four-day instructional week. The districts do this primarily to save money. But some are realizing benefits which they say are even more exciting than cost reduction.
Lori Delay, superintendent of Caney Independent School District in Atoka County, said district officials knew they could save 20 percent on transportation by switching to a four-day week but those savings have been overshadowed by the benefits to the students and teachers.
In Caney, teaching takes place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Students get 1,099 hours of instruction. The state minimum is 1,080 hours. What the schedule has done for Caney, Delay said, is lift the morale of teachers and students.
“I’m not going to say that we have attracted teachers,” she said, “but we have retained teachers (as a result of the schedule). We have some good teachers that have lots of experience, and we want to keep them.”
Caney is a small, rural district. Delay said that her school has realized some savings on transportation because the buses run on dirt roads, requiring extra maintenance. She reiterated the value of the schedule to the families served by the school district.
“We have a lot more time left,” she said. “Our reading and math are more in block classes and the kids get more time for small groups instruction, more time for experiments and things like that. You don’t just have that hour or 45 minutes for each period.
“We’re not here that extra day, but we do have more block time to get some things done that we didn’t have before in a class period.”
The world of education is changing, Delay said, and she welcomes those changes. Why stay with the traditional?
“You know, kids are different. We can go to online college now. College used to be, you had to go Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday and Thursday. Now you can go to college from your house, or your car, or wherever you are because it’s online.”
Changing the schedule is the prerogative of local school boards and the communities they serve, she said. In Caney, the switch was made on a trial basis. If it didn’t work, or if students and faculty experienced detrimental effects, the district was prepared for a return to the five-day week.
“We sent out a survey to our parents before we made the change,” she said. “Eighty percent of them were willing to try it. And I haven’t heard a negative from my parents since we started.”
Delay said that talk of the state legislature requiring public school districts to return to a five-day week frightened many of her parents. Senate Bill 37, introduced by then-state Sen. Kyle Loveless, would have required a five-day school week except in certain circumstances. The bill failed to clear the Senate Education Committee.
“When we thought for a while this year that there was some talk about schools not being able to go four days a week, my parents were coming and saying, ‘What are we going to do? We can’t go back (to five days). That’s impossible.’
“They were concerned,” Delay said. “My parents have been good with it.
“When somebody calls and asks me about (the four-day week) saving money, we don’t even look at it that way anymore. It’s not about saving money,” she said. “It’s about the morale and the scheduling freedom.”
A representative for Cave Springs Schools in Adair County agrees that monetary savings has been the least of the benefits from the district’s four-day schedule. The schedule change has provided some relief for teachers who feel overworked and underpaid. It’s also provided Cave Springs a recruitment tool to attract teachers to the district versus competing schools with a traditional five-day week.
According to a spokesman for Atoka Public Schools, the four-day schedule not only attracts and retains good teachers in a climate in which compensation enticement is challenging. The schedule also gives prospective teachers a valuable benefit not possible with a school using a traditional schedule.
Finally, Superintendent Mark Bush of Swink Public Schools in Choctaw County said that the four-day week has allowed him to hire highly qualified, retired school teachers who would not be willing to return to the classroom on a five-day basis.
“This past April we had resignations from two teachers,” he said, saying that larger districts recruited them away from his district with higher pay. “I thought, ‘How can I fill these slots for less money?’ and I began to pick up the phone and call these people who are the best of the best, that had given it (teaching) up, retired.”
He asked a retired teacher if she would come to work. “I’ll come,” she told him. “I’ve started drawing Social Security, I can make $17,000 and some change, that’s all I can make, but I’ll come work 8:00 to 12:30 every day.”
A different phone call revealed another recruit. “You’ve been out three years,” Bush said he told the retired teacher. “Could you come work two-thirds of a day for us for $20,000 a year?”
“I’ll come to work for you. Are you still on the four-day week?” a third retired teacher asked Bush. “Because I need those Fridays to take care of my 95-year-old parents.”
“Every one of them said, ‘Are you still on the four-day week?’” Bush said. “Yes, we are. Yes, we are.
“All three of those people, if we had gone back to the five-day week, couldn’t have come to work,” he said. “I was able to gather 98 years of experience between those three people, because we’re on the four-day week. It’s critical.
“They could go someplace else and make more money, but because of that (four-day week) I was able to attract three of the best teachers whoever walked the face of the earth in my opinion. And they came to my little old district.”
Talk of the five-day-a-week mandate led Bush to fear he could lose these teachers. Several years ago, he noted, lawmakers said they wanted local control in the schools. Now some of them believe they know what’s best for local communities and seek to force a five-day week.
“When I advertised that we would be hiring elementary positions this year. I was flooded with quality applicants for my open teaching positions,” he said, “not necessarily locals, because a lot of districts have four-day weeks here. It was attractive to them. I think the four-day week had something to do with that.
“It means a lot to us here at Swink.”
By Jay Chilton, CIJ