District 51 considers cutting Friday classes

With millions of dollars in cuts headed their way, the next thing to go at some Colorado school districts could be Fridays.

The four-day school week already is a reality in one-third of Colorado’s school districts. The Pueblo County 70 school board is the most recent to vote to lop a day off its school week. The change, approved March 2, will begin this fall.

Other districts, including Florence-Penrose School District and Mesa County Valley School District 51, are keeping the option open for future discussion.

The whisper of a four-day school week district-wide has boomed through the community and resulted in several phone calls to the school district, District 51 spokesman Jeff Kirtland said.

The idea appeared as a District 51 budget-cutting idea soon after the failure of a 2008 school bond measure. It was pulled out of a list of top options, then resurfaced in a list of the five most popular budget-cutting options among respondents to a survey conducted this January and February, and now it’s on the back burner again, Kirtland said. The option will be studied by a district committee only after budget cuts for the 2010-11 school year have been settled, he said.

“If you were to ask today if this was a viable option, I’d say no. We need to determine whether or not it is a possibility,” Kirtland said.

The four-day week is a reality in two local charter schools, Caprock Academy and Independence Academy, and at public schools Dual Immersion Academy, New Emerson, and Glade Park School.

Dual Immersion Principal Rosa Culver said the shortened week allows her students to go to doctor and dentist appointments or travel out of town without missing school. But it also means more learning time missed if a student is absent Monday through Thursday.

Culver said the school sometimes struggles to keep bus drivers because they earn less carting kids to and from school one day less than other drivers in the district.

“Our bus drivers and kitchen staff are among the least paid, so if the whole district cut to four days, they’ll be the most hurt,” Culver said.

Neither Caprock nor Independence saves on transportation, because the schools do not provide busing. The choice to have school Monday through Thursday was more about learning than saving cash, Caprock Headmaster Kristin Trezise said.

“We did it so that our kids could have longer periods of instruction, and so teachers could have more time for planning,” she said.

Students at schools with a four-day week go to school for at least as many hours as other students by making the school day an hour or so longer. This means more time can be spent on each subject in a day, according to Independence Academy Principal Damon Lockhart.

“I think a lot of it had to do with uninterrupted instructional time,” he said of the school’s decision to have extended days.

Caprock Academy and Independence Academy teachers use Friday to attend staff meetings and plan out the next week. Without students, the school saves money on transportation and serving lunch and breakfast on Friday. But having teachers around from at least 8 a.m. to noon means the lights and heat stay on.

Students still are invited to school on Fridays in Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School District. The district began having school four days a week last fall and hosts intervention sessions on Friday mornings for students that need extra help on certain subjects. Even though students can take the bus on Fridays, Superintendent Stacy Houser said the district saves money by hosting all interventions at one school.

Houser said the district is going into its third year of slicing away chunks of its budget, mostly because of decreasing enrollment, which means less money because the state provides funding per student. He said he resisted the change from a five-day week when a district accountability committee suggested it five years ago. Back then, gas prices were on the rise, and district enrollment was headed in the opposite direction. Increasing budget pressures made Houser take a second look, and he liked what he found.

“It’s not something I think every district would want to do, but at that time it was the right thing to do in our community,” he said. “I certainly understand the hesitations, from parental concerns to student achievement, but it seems to be working for us.”

Houser said the key to making a four-day week work is community support. After the change, Cortez nonprofit and recreation groups began offering more activities and programs on Fridays, he said.

Free ski activities for kids and teachers and increased recreation programs have helped keep East Grand 2 School District kids from being “latch-key kids” on Fridays, Superintendent Nancy Karas said. The district went to a four-day week in 1982 after a mill levy override proposal failed and the school district couldn’t pay for its budget, Karas said.

Karas said the district saves money on transportation, only pays certain employees, such as secretaries, for a 36-hour week, and saves on maintenance because custodians have Fridays to keep up with projects before schools deteriorate. She added the district keeps a close eye on keeping the heat turned down and lights off on Fridays.

The idea of going back to a five-day week comes up about once every two to three years, Karas said, but the idea never gets far.

“There’s always some people that discuss a five-day week, but once they realize the financial impact on the district, they say, ‘Never mind,’ ” Karas said.

The idea caught on at one elementary school in the district, though, and it will operate five days a week starting this fall, she said.

“With the economy the way it is, we have a lot of families that can’t afford day care,” Karas said.

With 60 students in the school and only one employee that would have otherwise worked less than 40 hours a week, the superintendent estimated the change should only cost the school an additional $20,000 a year to operate. Because of budget constraints, however, the school will have its budget reduced from about $600,000 to $520,000.


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