This article appeared in the Winter 2022-23 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
Athens Independent School District’s four-day school week played a major role in Elizabeth VanOrden’s decision to accept a job as the head choir director at Athens High School in 2021.
“A four-day work week is easier pacing for myself and my students,” she said, adding that it builds consistency, which helps student thrive. “I have a solid hour with my students every class period. And for those weekends when I have extracurricular responsibilities (like Saturday TMEA All-State Choir auditions), I still have a day where I can take care of home responsibilities.”
The shorter work week was also a welcome benefit for Julie Behnke, who joined Athens ISD in August 2019 after relocating from California. The fourth-grade teacher at Bel Air Elementary said she uses her Fridays without students to finish lesson plans at home, grade papers and enter grades.
With more teachers leaving the profession or considering different careers, attracting and retaining educators has become a greater challenge for many districts. This is especially true in small, rural Texas districts that are often unable to compete with higher salaries and other amenities offered by larger schools.
Several TCTA members in four-day districts said the shorter week has been a big boost to student and staff morale, but how it will impact student performance and other factors tied into school district accountability ratings is still an open question.
At least 27 districts made the switch to four-day school weeks beginning with the 2022-23 school year, more than doubling the number of four-day districts in Texas. Nationwide, four-day school weeks are used in over 1,600 schools across 24 states, according to a 2021 study published in Education Finance and Policy.
Mineral Wells ISD voted to make the switch in May after it began losing teachers to neighboring districts that already offered four-day school weeks.
“Last year we were on a nine-period day from 8:09 to 4:10,” said Mark Beaty, who teaches U.S. History and AP Government at Mineral Wells High School. “We now go from 8:10 to 4:20 (just 10 minutes longer) on an eight-period day.”
He said the 12 extra minutes per class has really helped. “I can teach a lesson and start an assignment and help them (or make them get started) instead of just assigning a homework lesson that many would not do.”
The longtime Mineral Wells ISD teacher said his biggest fear was that students would “get behind,” but so far that hasn’t happened.
“I think attendance has been better this year and the failure rate each six weeks has not increased,” Beaty said. “Of course, the big test will be how our STAAR scores are in the spring, but I am not feeling any more apprehensive than usual about them.”
Joyce LaMont likes having a weekday to run errands and schedule appointments. Despite a longer workday and occasional Fridays for professional development at Lamar Elementary in Mineral Wells ISD, she said, “Morale among teachers is higher, students are rested and ready to learn.”
Teacher retention issues prompted Athens ISD to make the switch to four-day weeks beginning in the 2019-20 school year. Knowing there would be some community pushback, Athens officials surveyed parents, staff and community members before beginning a three-year pilot program with a Monday-Thursday schedule.
On Fridays, free pick-up lunches are available for low-income students, and at least one of the city’s largest employers, Biomerics, added a Monday-Thursday option to make things easier for working parents and caregivers.
Superintendent Janie Sims recently told KERA that every group polled at the end of the pilot program overwhelmingly liked the four-day week, so the district extended it for the foreseeable future. Several TCTA members in Athens ISD said they liked the three-day weekends that allow them to spend more time with family, though some said adjusting to the four-day week took a little time.
“I feel more relaxed and energized for the next week,” said Chera Gandy, who teaches at Central Athens Elementary.
Districts like Mineral Wells and Athens have the freedom to implement four-day school weeks because Texas only requires that schools be open a minimum of 75,600 minutes over a school year. Many of the districts opting for four-day school weeks extended the length of the instructional day to ensure this time requirement is met.
The Texas Education Agency does not track four-day districts, but TCTA is aware of at least 42 operating under the model during the 2022-23 school year (see the blue box at the top of pages 12 and 13). How that works varies by district.
The first district in Texas to implement the four-day school week was Olfen ISD in the 2016-17 school year. The small district in West Texas operates with a modified schedule that makes some Fridays optional for students.
Pewitt CISD started a four-day school week this year, giving students Fridays off.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get everything you’ve planned for a unit in the four-day week, especially if there’s a lot of reteaching needed,” said Belinda Abston, who teaches at Pewitt Elementary. But she said, “It’s great to have three Fridays off almost every month. Teachers worked two Fridays in August, and we’ll work two Fridays in March and April. I have time to get things done and regroup.”
Having Fridays without students is also a plus for Sharon Atkins in Jasper ISD, which also started four-day school weeks this year to help retain and attract teachers. “Fridays are traditionally excitable days (for students), and this is a good day to have off,” she said. Jasper ISD teachers are required to work one Friday a month for professional development.
While the shorter work week is a plus for educators, its impact on student performance has been mixed so far. Athens ISD has seen improvement in test scores over the past three years, but recent studies in Oregon and Oklahoma found that four-day weeks negatively impacted students’ academic performance.
Paul Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University, said his research shows shorter school weeks can be especially hard on younger students. Examining student test scores in reading and math over 15 years, he found math scores dropped 6% and reading scores 4% because of reduced instructional time in the four-day districts he studied. For a four-day week to be effective, he said, students need as much instructional time as they would get in a traditional five-day model.
“If time in school doesn’t change between whether you go four days a week or five days a week, the composition of the time doesn’t really seem to matter all that much for achievement,” Thompson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
While Texas districts await more data on student performance, for now, the four-day school weeks are popular, especially with teachers who felt overworked during and since the pandemic.
“I used to spend Saturday on schoolwork and Sunday on housework. Now I have a day to enjoy my family,” said Shawna Poage, who teaches at Corrigan-Camden Elementary. Corrigan-Camden ISD started four-day weeks in 2020-21. “I don’t think I could ever go back to five days a week.”
Cynthia Wise in DeKalb ISD agrees.
“I like having the extra time to do things that I usually would not be able to do,” she said. “I feel more refreshed on Mondays. I believe that I get more work done.”