East Sac County Community School District superintendent Kevin Fiene addresses a crowd before the calendar committee presented its proposal for a four-day instructional week.
East Sac County Community School District superintendent Kevin Fiene addresses a crowd before the calendar committee presented its proposal for a four-day instructional week.
January 14, 2014



SAC CITY

East Sac students would have no classes on the Mondays of each school week under a proposal that would cut the number of school days but lengthen each day by an hour.

Teachers who were part of a committee that pitched the idea lauded the shortened week at a public meeting on Monday as a way to cut the need for late starts and early dismissals for their state-required professional development sessions, which they said can disrupt the flow of classroom work.

This school year has 17 late-starts and eight early dismissals. Just 12 of the year's 36 weeks are uninterrupted by teacher professional development. With the proposed four-day week, 35 of 36 weeks of instruction would be uninterrupted.

Kerri Eichhorn, a high school special-education teacher who served on the calendar committee, said the no-class Mondays would allow teachers to give extra help to struggling students and allow other students to volunteer or pursue college-credit courses.

Officials of the WACO school district in southeastern Iowa - which is in its first year with the four-day week - have reported that 90 percent of their students participate in the extra-day programs, East Sac Superintendent Kevin Fiene said.

Research has also shown that there are less staff and student absences with a four-day week because people have an extra weekday to handle doctor, dentist and other appointments.

The current East Sac school day is seven hours long, starting at 8:20 a.m. and dismissing at 3:20 p.m. The proposed school day under a four-week calendar would be one hour longer, running from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Fiene was unsure how the elongated days might affect sports and other extracurricular activities.

But no change is without its share of challenges, said Eichhorn. Concerns cited by the calendar committee include the need for child care on the fifth day of the week, earlier times the students would have to get on the bus, increased pressure on the shorter attention spans of the younger children, longer time between meals, and the impact on extracurricular schedules. Eichhorn said that bus routes were being examied and the possibility of adding snack breaks for students had been discussed.

The shortened-week discussion at East Sac was made possible by a change in Iowa law that goes into effect in July that allows districts to tally instructional hours instead of days. Under current law, schools must be in session for 180 teaching days, and a day must be at least 5 1/2 hours. Under the new law, schools must meet for 1,080 hours, and may divide those hours by as many or as few days as they choose. Fiene said he expects every district to switch to hours, because that allows a school to still receive credit for instructional hours taught, even if school releases early due to an emergency or weather. Under the days calendar, if a school lets out before the 5 1/2 hours are completed, they receive no credit for the time spent in the classroom.

Carroll Community schools Superintendent Rob Cordes said today that the possibility of turning to a four-day week has not been considered in Carroll. Cordes anticipates further changes in the state law regarding instructional days versus hours before the end of the 2014 legislative session that kicked off on Monday.

Additionally, any change in the school week made by the Carroll district would need to be a joint venture with the Kuemper Catholic School System, as its busing is tied to Carroll's, Cordes said.

Fiene said East Sac school principals and guidance counselors have just begun meetings to draw up potential schedules for each building to suit the needs of the different-aged students. For the younger children, the required academic classes could be scheduled in the morning with specials scheduled in the afternoon when attention spans were more likely to wane, Eichhorn added.

One possibility suggested for child care was to hire high school students who also had the day off.

"Keep in mind that changes are made every year," said Eichhorn. "This is a big change, but it's a way to think outside the box and see how we can better student achievement."

Fiene deflected on Monday the claims that the change was pursued in secrect and was driven by financial concerns.

"That just isn't true," said Fiene. "I can look you in the eye and say, 'No, we're not in financial straits, that's not why we're doing this.' "

A committee of teachers from each grade level in each building was tasked with proposing new schedules for the next school year. One of the options is to keep with the five-day routine. Next year's schedule is expected to be approved by the school board in February.

Additional concerns from audience members included the lack of evidence-based, long-term research. Stephanie Bellcock, Sac City graduate and mother of a 1- and 2-year-old said she was concerned the change would be "gambling" the students' education.

Fiene said research conducted had shown marked increase or static achievement rates with a four-day week, but he had found no studies suggesting a decrease in achievement after the change.

Bellcock also voiced the concern of many audience members of the impact on sports. If students must leave at 2:50 p.m. for an away game, they would miss even more class time if the day was extended, as no other schools in the area are considering a four-day week at this time. Others asked whether teachers would be available before or after school to help students who did not have a study hall.

Sharla Hulsey, pastor at First Christian Church, said that many children in Sac City relied on school for their meals, and asked if the committee had considered the impact a four-day week would have on those children. One attendee asked how the students would be prepared for a five-day work-week or college if they were adjusted to a four-day school week.

Elementary teacher Wanda Bruxvoort asked how eliminating one day might affect the bus drivers, cooks, and teachers' associates.

Fiene and committee members acknowledged they did not have all the answers, but have discussed possibilities addressing the concerns mentioned, such as a backpack program to send free-lunch students home with snacks for the three-day weekend, or associate training so that teacher aides wouldn't simply lose their fifth day of pay.

The proposal also received some vocal support, particularly from one attendee who had experienced the four-day school week in South Dakota before she and her family moved to Iowa a few years ago.

"There are a lot of complaints, but I think it's because nobody has been in that situation," Crystal Hanrahan said.

About 50 people attended Monday's public meeting. Fiene said the crowd was not as large as he'd hoped, but that it was good to get the dialogue started, even if the district doesn't switch to a four-day week in the coming year.

A second public meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday in the small gym at East Sac High School in Lake View.