Youngsters may relish the thought of a three-day weekend, but local educators are not so sure if a four-day school week, proposed by a downstate assemblyman, is practical or academically beneficial.
With diesel prices topping $5 a gallon and the average price for heating oil currently at $4.55 and expected to go higher in the fall, school districts are feeling the pinch of fuel costs.
Assemblyman Peter Rivera, D-Bronx, has proposed legislation to require school districts to develop a plan for a four-day school week. Rivera believes the state’s school districts could save millions of dollars in energy costs.
“School taxes are going to increase ... as a result of added fuel cost, added heating costs, added electrical costs,” he said.
The legislation would not mandate a four-day week but require that districts submit a plan to the state Education Department. The Legislature has not acted upon the bill in this session. Rivera said it was introduced too late, but he would make it a priority for 2009.
Local school districts are somewhat wary of the concept and the disruption it would cause for child care, extracurricular activities and instructional time. A four-day school week would mean lengthening the school day from its current six hours to possibly eight.
Fonda-Fultonville Central School District Superintendent Jim Hoffman said a four-day school week would be feasible, but it would have to overcome a lot of logistical hurdles. “It’s not something you could just snap your fingers and say, ‘Let’s go do it,’ ” he said.
It would definitely save fuel costs. Hoffman’s district is purchasing 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel for the coming school year. The district drafted the budget when fuel was $4 a gallon, so it is already over budget. A four-day school week would shave $40,000 off fuel expenses and get the district within budget.
But Hoffman said he is not sure whether the district would save additional energy costs. For example, if there were no school on Friday, he wonders whether there would be an advantage to lowering heat in the buildings on Thursday and then having to increase it again for Monday. The district regulates its heat using a computer system. Through the winter, it sets the thermostat at 68 degrees during the week and drops it to 65 heading into the weekend.
New York State Energy Research and Development spokeswoman Colleen Ryan said for every degree the thermostat is decreased, it saves about 1 to 2 percent in energy costs. However, it depends on the type of building and the fuel being used.
Hoffman also wondered whether the students would still be alert during a longer school day.
“How attentive are they going to be at those 4:30, 5 o’clock sessions? Kids only have an attention span of so long,” he said. After-school sporting events would also be pushed back, to 5 or 5:30 p.m.
Four-day work weeks are gaining in popularity. Utah is starting a four-day work week program for almost three-quarter of the state’s 24,000 executive branch employees.
Locally, the Albany-Colonie Chamber of Commerce has started a pilot program allowing employees to work four 10-hour days.
Some school districts nationwide have been doing four-day weeks for a while.
As of 2003, a total of 108 school districts in nine states had four-day school week programs, mostly small, rural districts. Districts that that have such programs are located in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming, according to information from the National School Boards Association.
Last month, the MACCRAY School District in western Minnesota receive state approval to implement a four-day week plan in the fall.
pros and cons
A study by Joseph L. Daly and Robert W. Richburg showed there was almost no affect on student achievement, but there was a suggestion showing a leveling off of performance during the first year from the schools on the four-day schedule.
The Regional Educational Laboratory, which researches educational trends, reported that benefits included increased attendance for teachers and students, less money spent on fuel costs, better morale, less time lost to extracurricular activities, teacher training and doctor’s appointments and fewer disciplinary problems.
Drawbacks include complaints from working parents that need to find child care and student and teacher fatigue.
Area school officials expressed their own worries.
Schenectady City School Superintendent Eric Ely said changing to a four-day school week would involve a complete overhaul of contracts with teachers and administrators, as well as teaching methods.
“Now, you’re going to have to teach five days worth of material in four days,” he said.
The district is already extending its school day by 30 minutes, which pushes back sports programs and extracurricular activities. A longer school day would push those back even further.
Ely said if there were a four-day week, he would likely used the fifth to provide extra help for students. In that case, he would still have to heat the buildings, bring staff in and provide transportation. Ely also pointed out that school is the social center for many children. “We provide a safe place for kids to be five days a week, morning through evening,” he said. “This is where they get breakfast. This is where they get lunch.”
He said another day away from school on a long weekend is another day where they may not be getting adult supervision.
Child care is a major issue, school officials said.
“What do you do if you have students that are home one day a week?” asked David Alpert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. “Do you provide some type of extracurricular activity for that day?”
Saratoga Springs City School District Superintendent Janice White said she would worry about students not being in school for three consecutive days. It would save fuel, but she believes the working parents may end up spending money on child care.
She said she believes it might be more beneficial to have year-round school with shorter breaks. There would be less downtime for students.
“What schools tend to be doing now is putting in summer programs,” she said.
Others also questioned the lengthened instructional time.
“A 5-year-old or a 6-year-old in first grade is going to have a more difficult time with the additional two hours than a high school student depending on the circumstances,” said New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn.
Korn said schools should examine how to use the hours in the day more effectively. For example, there is time lost when students are changing classes.
Most importantly, there needs to be a full discussion among, school boards, teachers, parents and businesses before a four-day week is tried. “You’d hate to see anybody rush into it without a full exploration of impact,” he said.
Even some of the sponsors of the bill have some questions. Bob Reilly, D-Colonie, said that there is a crisis in energy and something needs to be done.
“Educationally, is it good to have kids four days in school and three days off? As a former teacher, I don’t think so, but that doesn’t say don’t study it,” he said.
He said there may be more negatives than positives looking at it. The long-term solution is going to be a mix of conservation and looking for alternative energy.
Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, said a four-day concept may work for rural districts. However, an extended day could cut into sports and other after school activities. “I’m sure there’s a lot of coaches that won’t be real happy,” he said.
He said the four-day school week raises as many questions as it answers.
“The jury is still out,” he said.