Parents, bus drivers cringe as Eatonville eyes a four-day school week

The Eatonville School District weighs the idea of a shortened school week that would save the district money, but leave parents and school employees in the lurch.

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School Board President Robert Homan

The Eatonville School District weighs the idea of a shortened school week that would save the district money, but leave parents and school employees in the lurch.

A small school district in Eatonville, a town lying in the shadow of Mount Rainier, is considering making every school kid's wish come true: a three-day weekend, every week.

Monday night, Eatonville School District held its first community meeting concerning a proposal to shorten the school week to four days. While research in support of the proposal was presented and common concerns addressed, community members, teachers, and bus drivers still left the meeting with reservations.

The plan would, among other things, still require action by the state legislature, where a bill has been introduced to allow some smaller districts to go to a shorter week.  

As it sits, the Eatonville proposal would cut the number of days in the school year from 180 to 150, but would increase the instructional hours of each day by a little over an hour, for a total of 7.6 hours in each school day. This would put the number of total instructional hours each school year at 1,016 — 16 more than the state of Washington's requirement. It is estimated that this move would save about $200,000, mostly in transportation costs and food services, as well as some savings in facilities operation.

With funding for K-12 education facing possible cuts in the Washington State Legislature's current session, the school district's main reason for looking into the four-day school week is to offset potential cuts. Because the Eatonville School District is particularly large — covering an area of 460 square miles as compared to the Seattle School District's 145 square mile range (a large portion of which is water) — Eatonville stands to save a lot of money on transportation costs.

In response to the Legislature's requirement that school districts show where their savings are going, the Eatonville School District has decided to put all $200,000 into an all-day, tuition-free kindergarten. Still, the district's use of the savings is subject to change, said School Board President Robert Homan, depending on the actions of the Legislature. According to Homan, it is possible that they would use the money to preserve programs affected by budget cuts, such as P.E.

Still, members of the Flexible Calendar Committee, organized by the district in order to research the new idea, expressed their commitment to providing all children with free all-day kindergarten, saying that they believed all students should have an equal opportunity for education.

The district says that a four-day school week would create a consistent weekly schedule for families and an extra day each week for the professional development of staff and teachers. Many benefits for students, too, were presented to the audience.

Citing existing research on the subject, Cedar Crest Elementary Principal Janna Rush laid out benefits cited by other districts that had switched to a four-day week: lower drop-out rates, fewer disciplinary referrals, better attendance for both teachers and students, more positive attitudes about school, and more time for quality staff development. Furthermore, according to School Board Member Ronda Litzenberger, after a year or so of transitioning, communities have said they preferred the new schedule and did not want to go back.

However, despite those positive reviews, some critics say that research on the subject is backed up with little hard evidence, supported mostly with anecdotes and assumptions. "As noted by many observers, the literature that exists on the four-day school week is mainly positive, but not often peer-reviewed or scientifically based, and few summaries of this literature provide any critical analysis of the results," write Christine Donis-Keller and David Silvernail, in their report for the University of South Maine's Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation Research Brief: A Review of the Evidence on the 4-day School Week.

Still, the report concludes that districts which have implemented the four-day school week boast wide public support and financial savings. So far, researchers have not been able to accurately measure the influence on academics, though the schedule switch has shown no negative effects.

Audience members expressed a number of concerns about the schedule shift. Many parents at the meeting were concerned that they and others would not be able to provide childcare for their kids on Fridays, and were worried about children being at home for prolonged periods of time. This was particularly a concern for at-risk youth and students with special needs.

The committee responded that they are working with community organizations to brainstorm creative alternatives. Ideas included tutoring, day camp, sports, and clubs. These activities could take place at the school itself, which would remain open on some Fridays. Other school districts with the four-day week have also employed high school students to babysit, Rush said.

One woman, who only wanted to be identified as a middle school teacher, was concerned about interruptions to the unusally long school day from other activities planned around different school schedules. She worried students might leave school early to attend sports practices for leagues made up of students not on the same 7.6-hour day.

The teacher's son, a junior in high school, was concerned that students who missed a day of school due to sickness or other reasons, could fall much further behind than those who miss a day in the current model. The concern was not addressed at the meeting.

Litzenberger stood up to allay the concerns of parents. "The reason I was interested in being on this committee was not for the dollars," she said. "I want to know how this is going to affect my kids."

One benefit of the 7.6 hour school-day plan, she argued, is that parents would not have to interrupt their work schedule to accomodate half-days for children in kindergarten. By having Fridays off, she said, teachers can meet and align their curriculums, thereby improving their ability to instruct children and putting everyone on the same page. That way, she said, when middle school rolls around, all children will have a more equal foothold.

Bus drivers were among the most skeptical stakeholders at the meeting. Along with cafeteria workers, bus drivers would take the biggest salary reduction. The district is expected to save about $35,000 in bus driver salary and $29,000 in cafeteria worker salary by eliminating the need for those positions on Fridays.

According to the president of the PSU union local, Bonnie Nicol, this is about two months worth of salary cuts per worker. Nicol said if these cuts went through, it wouldn't be a matter of finding a second job, but another job entirely. She said she could not handle the reduced pay, the reduced benefits, and the extra time it would take for her to retire.

"I can't afford to lose two months of salary," she said. "Our pay scale is already below the average." The bus drivers at the meeting wondered if it was worth hurting employees just for the sake of an all-day kindergarten. Though none of the committee members provided an answer that alleviated the concern, Homan gave a more direct answer.

"Bottom line is: What can we do that's best for our kids," he said. "That's what we're really concerned about."

The proposal is not set in stone. Rush said that it would only move forward if the district got the OK from the Washington State Education Board, the Eatonville School Board, and the approval of the community. Changes to the plan may still be made based on community input and the Legislature's actions.

Further, the four-day school week plan cannot go forward at all unless a bill is passed allowing 20 districts with up to 2,200 students to have four-day school weeks. State Sen. Randi Becker is working on the legislation, which would theoretically open up the possibility of a four-day week for other school districts. There is no word yet if other districts are considering it.


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