While many education experts call for longer school days and year-round school, some districts are trying to better prepare student by giving them Mondays off.
BATES COUNTY, Mo. – Ever-increasing global competition in job markets and research fields has pumped up pressure on American schools to churn out smarter and better-prepared students.
Some education experts advocate year-round schools. Others say longer school days are needed. Some schools have even added Saturday classes.
But a growing number of school districts across the country are trying a different strategy. In fact, they're going in a completely different direction.
They're taking Mondays off.
Students go longer Tuesday through Friday because they still must meet state minimums for classroom hours. And although they don't attend class on Mondays, teachers do. They come in for staff development, lesson planning and technology training.
The idea is either horrible or innovative, depending on whom one asks Critics say it adversely affects students' education. Supporters say it makes teachers better. Students? A senior girl shrugged and said she was looking forward to sleeping in an extra day.
Officials in these four-day districts make no apologies and insist their students will hold their own against any elsewhere.
"Our ACT scores are the best they've been in 10 years, and our teachers love it," said Chris Fine, superintendent of the Lathrop school district in Clinton County, Mo., which went to four days in 2010. It was the first district in the state to do so after the General Assembly passed legislation a year earlier.
Most of these are small, rural districts, such as Miami R-1, about an hour south of Kansas City. Its one school building, serving all grades, is surrounded by head-high corn this time of year and has so few students, the boys play football for another school in a nearby town. Eagles by day, Bobcats on Friday night.
In Montana ranch country, a Monday on the school calendar is sometimes called "go-to-town day."
The Missouri law came with the requirement that any district incurring substantial drop-offs in performance must go back to the traditional five days. It's early, but no district has had to do that.
When states first agreed to four-day schedules, the reason was to help financially strapped small districts save money on transportation, support staff and utilities. Those savings turned out to be minimal, but that's not why Miami switched this year.
"This is about making teachers better," Superintendent Frank Dahman said last month on opening day.
He is convinced that giving teachers those Mondays revs them up so they can do more with the new four than the old five.
"Ever since the beginning of time, we've placed demands on teachers and then not given them time to do it. With new requirements for development and new technology, those demands are going to increase. Giving them this day is what teachers have been screaming for for years.
"Better-prepared teachers means better students, and that's where the rubber meets the road."
No one knows for sure how many districts have gone to four-day schedules. The Education Commission of the States estimates the number at several hundred in 17 states — and going up.
A big mistake, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time & Learning, a Boston-based group that advocates more classroom time.
"The idea of narrowing the educational structure is absolutely the wrong direction," Davis said. "We are at a critical point of education in this country. We need to be raising standards. We're past the time of graduating from high school and getting a middle-class job. Those jobs are gone.
"Our kids are going to have to compete with the world. I can't think that taking away a day of school is going to help."
The debate is a touchy one for state education officials. They may not like the idea of four-day schools, but the format has been approved by states.
"We stay neutral, but it is the law," said Roger Dorson, Missouri's coordinator of school financial and administrative services.
It's too early to give the system a grade, he said.
"Next year, we will know more."
Grandma seldom finds herself part of a national debate.
But she's in this one about the four-day school week. The thinking is that the plan works best in rural areas where child care for those Mondays would be less of an issue.
"We're seeing this in districts where a parent is home during the day or the child can spend the day with Grandma nearby," said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.
Indeed, child care has been the big issue. And probably why we don't see the four-day week in large, urban districts, where parents typically work outside the home. The occasional snow day causes them enough child care trauma.
Fine, the Lathrop superintendent, said child care was a major concern at first. But a community survey conducted halfway through the first year showed that more than 70 percent of parents supported the four-day schedule.
Davis, with the National Center on Time & Learning, thinks child care is often a socioeconomic issue and should be a deal breaker against the four-day week.
"What about the families that can't afford enrichment activities, piano lessons and high-quality child care on those Mondays?" she asked. "What you would end up with in a lot of districts is kids spending those days in unsafe environments."
That's not the case in the Orearville school district in rural Saline County in mid-Missouri. Or as Superintendent Marilyn Ehlert puts it, "We're just a little school on top of a hill in the middle of farmland."
This will be the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade district's third year going four days.
"Teachers hated the idea at first, but they wouldn't go back now," Ehlert said. "Our attendance is up, our teacher attendance is up and we are accredited with distinction by the state."
She grew up in St. Louis and attended big-city schools. She doesn't know why everybody seems so insistent that a four-day week wouldn't work in a suburban or urban district.
"But if you think something will be an obstacle, you can probably make it into one."
Besides Orearville, Lathrop and Miami, other four-day districts in Missouri include East Lynne, Lexington, Harrisburg and Montgomery County R-II. Officials don't know how many more may have joined them this year.
Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner for the Kansas Department of Education, said that for the 2010-11 school year, the state had 16 districts going four days a week.
This year, the list includes four more.
"All small rural districts," Dennis said.
Want a good debate on the four-day week?
You missed a dandy in a green Jeep SUV parked under a shade tree on a recent Wednesday in front of the Miami school, which draws its 180 or so students from Amoret, Amsterdam, Merwin and farms in between.
Amanda McConnell, who had arrived to pick up her kindergartner, said she likes the idea of teachers having an extra day for planning. And she's tired of hearing people complain that children will be in school less time.
"They're going the same amount of time — just in a better way," she said.
"But what about the kids having to stay longer each day?" asked her sister, Amy Kelly.
"What — 20 minutes?" McConnell said. "I think they can handle that."
"I think young kids were checking out late in the day already," Kelly said. "This is just going to make that worse."
"Twenty minutes, not two hours," McConnell said. "And being off that Monday refreshes kids for the week."
Their mother, Susan Kelly, broke the tie: "I would have to think more days means better retention."
Superintendent Dahman has heard it all.
First off, he came to town and worked out a grant deal to provide every student an iPad. Now he is taking the district to four days a week. Keep in mind, this is farm country.
"I don't know what they're saying up at the corner," he laughed, referring to the store in Amsterdam, Mo., where coffee drinkers gather most mornings.
But he wants it known that by starting school a week earlier, students will be in class only 14 fewer hours over a school year.
Last year, the district went 1,066 hours. This year it's 1,052 hours, still more than the state requirement of 1,044 hours. Classes start 15 minutes earlier and extend 20 minutes later. But having teachers come in every other Monday, Dahman said, is worth 14 hours. "Especially for our older teachers," he said. "We need to give them time to catch up." Students use the iPad to keep track of schedules, assignments and messages from teachers.
Sometimes a student's homework from the tablet is displayed on a large TV in the classroom.
"Give me this time because I need it," said fifth-grade teacher Jeanne Burgin. "I can use an iPad, but my students use it better than me. I have a family and my own kids. I don't want to be in here at midnight or weekends learning to use this thing."
Students seem to be good with the change.
"I've got a job after school, and now I can use Monday to put in a good 10-hour day," senior David Weaver said.
Ashley Jellison, a senior volleyball player, said that because of Friday night games, athletes can't do homework that day.
"Now we have Mondays for that," she said.
The dissenter: Dylan Good.
"I think it's a waste of a day. We should be in school, and I think my parents would agree with me."
Some parents probably don't like the new system — possibly because they don't know what to do with a younger child on Mondays.
But they get no sympathy from parent Lisa Filtingberger.
"What did they do with that child all summer?"
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