By EMILIE THIESSEN
When the idea of transitioning to a four-day school week was mentioned to Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (BBE) Superintendent Matt Bullard, he said he was adamantly opposed to such a drastic measure.
“I was very apprehensive,” he said. “I did not see how going from five days to four days could really be in the best interest of students.”
But for Bullard and the school board, it came down to cutting programs to the bone, to a place where no more cuts could be made, or considering a shortened week to save money.
“What is the priority?” he asked.
For the last three months, students and teachers at BBE have experienced the ups and downs of a four-day week, attending class Tuesday through Friday only. For high school math teacher, Josie Dingmann, it has been a positive change.
“Overall, the four-day school week is going better than I anticipated,” she said.
To make up for lost class time on Monday, students stay one hour longer each day, which means longer class times. Dingmann said this has been one of the most positive components of the shorter week.
“That extra time [each class period] is wonderful to have with students to measure their understanding before they leave that day,” she said. “And I don’t notice the longer hours at all.”
Like Dingmann, many teachers are surprisingly ahead of schedule with their curriculum this year. Initially, it was a significant transition for the teachers to change the delivery method of their curriculum to accommodate the change, Bullard said, but he is very pleased with the result.
“Our teachers have done a very good job with that,” he said. “They have modified what they do and how they deliver their content very well.”
Instead of setting aside days during the school week to facilitate staff development, Bullard said the four-day week allows for staff-development projects to be scheduled for Mondays, an additional benefit for the district. “That is going to allow a much more robust staff-development program,” he said.
The school is nearly empty on Mondays, with only four or five staff in the building. This is where the bulk of savings will come from, right around $100,000 for the year, by significantly reducing energy costs for the day. Activities and entertainment for children and families are also kept to a minimum on Mondays to ensure savings.
“If we are going to go to a four-day instructional week and then have Monday set aside to have both buildings up and operational with entertainment activities, let’s just not do entertainment and have five days of school,” he said.
Talk of moving to a shortened week started years ago, Bullard said, but only got serious in October of last year. School administration was asked to put an alternative schedule proposal together last January, and three community meetings were scheduled in March to get input from local residents. Bullard, who has two children in the district — 10-year-old Abbigail and 8-year-old Abe — said public input is essential for such a large change.
“Through the application process, you have to verify that the alternative calendar you are proposing isn’t going to inadvertently punish kids or affect them in a negative way because of less class time,” he said. “You need to have that public input. You need to put it out there and go with what the feedback says.”
Bullard said that information collected from surveys sent to attendees of the meetings, as well as surveys given to all students in grades 5-12, indicated about 85 percent of students were interested in a four-day week and 83 percent of parents were positive about the proposed change.
Though intrigued with the idea, Bullard said parents also expressed concerns about children getting home one hour later after school, more fatigue during the longer days, and the cost of childcare on Mondays.
Bullard said parents raised valid concerns, but believed the input remained a clear sign that residents were interested in an alternative schedule. The district applied for a shortened week in April and was approved shortly after.
By the first day of the 2011-2012 school year, the new schedule was put in place. So far, the biggest challenge has been athletic schedules, Bullard said.
“Right now we are dealing with an athletic schedule that was created based on a five-day school week,” he said.
The five-day schedule has games starting earlier in the evening, which means students are forced to leave school during their seventh hour class.
“That one I didn’t even think of,” he said. “It caught me by surprise. … It is a lesson learned.”
Otherwise, Bullard said he is very pleased and anticipates the alternative schedule will be a mainstay in the district, at least for a while. The district will be conducting its annual review come December.
“We will determine if our schedule continues, depending on what the reaction is and what people’s perception of the four-day week is,” he said. “But I am happy with where we are at right now.”