PEYTON — Everything ties into everything in education, Tim Kistler likes to say, and the superintendent of the rural Peyton School District 23JT offers a case-in-point as he makes his way into a spacious, generously outfitted wood shop hung with banners for its industrial sponsors early on a Thursday morning.
This woodworking class, where students sit in serious concentration learning the basics of measurement, is, in its own way, connected to what happens on Friday — the four-day district’s weekday off.
While mostly rural communities all over Colorado wrestle with the question of how to engage students on what many simply call “Fifth Day,” Peyton has a built-in option. Within its wildly popular woods program, which runs a regular Monday-through-Thursday schedule at the Peyton site, those who stick with it to the advanced level find their coursework spilling over into Fridays.
That’s when they board a bus for the 30-minute ride to a 46,000-square-foot space called “the MiLL,” for Manufacturing industry Learning Labs, near the Colorado Springs airport. There, Peyton and the much larger, five-day Widefield School District have partnered on a full-blown career technical education (CTE) center where they share programs with several districts, some private schools and even a community college.
“We use it as a fifth day, where students go down there to do work, even though they’re not normally in school,” Kistler says, noting that there’s no charge for the program or the ride to the lab.
There’s a payoff for kids in the 600-student Peyton district who spend their off day learning anything from how to fashion wood furniture using computer design to construction skills: certifications valuable in an industry hungry for workers.
“If they’re really dedicated, they commit to that — and parents are OK with it because we supply transportation,” says Mary Krisko, the Peyton district’s CTE director. “They see the value in it, and also understand that in a lot of industry, it’s a five-day week. This is real-world stuff.”
As more and more Colorado districts adopt the four-day school week, that extra weekday presents both challenges and opportunities for innovation. And communities have found ways to leverage the extra hours with everything from structured programs driven by the kids they serve to far-flung rodeos and local Nerf-gun battles; from opportunities in technology to the simple pleasure of family game night.
Three years ago, the Donnell-Kay Foundation, a Denver-based education nonprofit, began studying ways that communities approach the shift away from the traditional five-day education template. It put out a request for proposals and wound up partnering with seven communities on programs that, importantly, were driven by student interest and, whenever possible, focused on disadvantaged students.
One of the key takeaways was that there were many reasons districts chose to go to the four-day week that went beyond economics, says Donnell-Kay partner Antonio Parés, who headed the project.
Some saw it as a perk that would help attract and retain teachers. A few in particularly remote areas cited the need to travel significant distances to take care of anything from grocery shopping to dentist appointments — without pulling kids from class. Another travel-related benefit, Parés found when he spoke to rural communities, was that it made sense for interscholastic sports.
And while Parés admits that when it comes to filling that fifth day he leans toward programmed activity, he also notes that solutions aren’t necessarily one-size-fits-all. In some communities, unprogrammed time can be beneficial, too.
“Let’s put it on the table — freestyle is good,” Parés says of unstructured time. “Kids playing outside, being imaginative, creating complex worlds, (making up) games with rules. There’s something really incredible about that … Freestyle in many communities seemed to be doing all right. Because they’re rural and small, there are lots of ways for kids to plug into things.
“The difference when you add programs is that now you’ve got some things that are in place, things you can count on,” he says. “If you’re smart with your programs, you can target families that may not have access to things that existed in other families’ freestyle time.”
Parés says he still sees a lot of school districts taking the lead on “fifth-day stuff,” but adds that often programs work best when they’re a function of community empowerment — something that, in a state like Colorado where local control is a watchword, could lead to solutions for issues from teacher recruitment and retention to shrinking enrollment.
“But,” he adds, “they probably need a little support — and maybe even a little cover — as they try new things that look different than what we all traditionally got used to.”
School districts, outside resources and even individual families have found ways to adapt to the four-day week in Colorado. Their stories demonstrate approaches to a phenomenon that began as a way to solve money issues — but has rapidly evolved into a lifestyle.
Roping the rodeo life
It’s around 6 p.m. on Sunday when 16-year-old Wacey Day gets home from a weekend of rodeoing in Lexington, Nebraska, a three-hour drive from her family’s home near Fleming. It makes for a full weekend, and this will be her demanding routine — all while carrying her full course load at Lone Star School — pretty much through the end of October.
Her saving grace: Mondays off.
Lone Star, with a K-12 enrollment of a little more than 100 kids and a 100% graduation rate, maintains high achievement on a four-day week. But while many such districts take Fridays off, Wacey is glad that hers puts the extra day at the start of the week.
“I’ve been rodeoing since I was 5, on a horse ever since I can remember,” she says, describing her passion for the sport. “When we get home (from competition) Sunday night, I have Mondays to get the trailer cleaned, get everything ready to go for the next weekend. It would be hard to get everything done if I didn’t have Mondays off.”
Rodeo has been a way of life for the family since Wacey’s older sister, 18-year-old Riata, was in sixth grade. They’ve won multiple state and national honors while competing not on the Colorado high school circuit, but in Nebraska, where events are closer to their home.
Riata, who graduated from Lone Star last year, now attends Northeastern Junior College in Sterling on a two-year full scholarship for rodeo. Wacey has begun her junior year of high school and competes in barrel racing, goat tying, breakaway roping and team roping.
The extra weekday has served the dual purpose of helping them stay ahead of the game both academically and around the house, while also giving them a leg up competitively.
“Monday has given them time to regroup,” says Heather Day, the girls’ mom. “We’re gone the whole weekend, so it has allowed them to get caught up on homework, and they’ve had a lot of chores at the house to do. They take care of feeding all the animals, get the trailer cleaned out, get laundry done for the next weekend. Monday is full. It wasn’t just sitting around.”
Wacey’s Monday routine involves exercising her horse in the cool of the morning, cleaning out the trailer in the heat of the day and then practicing, with the help of her parents, in the evenings. She also finds time for schoolwork, as her 4.0 grade-point attests. She began taking college courses online last year through Northeastern JC and plans to take two more this year.
Count Lone Star Superintendent and Principal Mike Bowers among the believers in what that extra day off does for his district’s rodeo competitors. He calls them “some of the most motivated kids I ever met — just a different breed of kid” and can think of four off the top of his head who’ve earned full-ride college scholarships just in the last few years.
“These kids know if they don’t take care of work in the classroom, they don’t get to rodeo,” he says. “Those type of kids you want on your side.”
And as Wacey’s mom points out, the academic expectations and demands in the small but high-achieving northeastern Colorado district don’t leave a lot of idle time.
“It’s small, so there’s a lot of one on one, a lot of homework,” Heather says. “It’s pretty intense, pretty high-level. In four days, you couldn’t slack.”
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The slippery slope of free skiing
The East Grand School District, which takes in the Winter Park ski area, benefits from one perk that goes a long way toward making a four-day week not only tolerable, but desirable: District employees and students ski free on Fridays.
But that didn’t mean the district wasn’t looking for help with that fifth day. Free lift tickets are great, but skiing is still expensive — and a lot of kids weren’t taking advantage of the deal. Instead, they often found themselves home alone while their parents worked in the service industry, or at loose ends on what amounted to a three-day weekend.
So when Donnell-Kay offered to help with programming, East Grand jumped at the opportunity and used the grant to help kids get engaged. The district launched a project-based, hands-on program built around kids’ interests.
“For two years we’ve been working on it, and we have not perfected it,” says Superintendent Frank Reeves. “But we’ve learned a lot. One thing we learned quickly is that we had to provide transportation. Otherwise they won’t come.”
And while the goal remains to follow student interests, the district found that the program works best when it’s driven thematically: It has helped kids with projects in photography, GPS, robotics and many other areas. Through its grant, East Grand partnered with a company called raft colorado, which builds creative lessons around reusable materials.
“The whole intent behind it is to provide another activity for all our kids,” Reeves says.
For Nicole Schafer, whose three boys have participated in the program, the evolution to a more student-directed process has been a plus — particularly for her 10-year-old son, Zac Boeckers, who she describes as a “creative thinker.”
“Having a blank sheet and then being asked to create a product you think would make the world a better place was empowering for him,” she says, describing one project. “He didn’t need someone to give him the answer. He liked the open-ended opportunity to create.”
He came up with a concept that reflected his passion for ice hockey: a Styrofoam pad to protect an area of the body that traditional hockey equipment doesn’t cover — the midsection. His prototype, which he displayed for an audience of teachers, parents and students, used suspenders to hang the padding against the player’s core.
“He had a model wear it,” she says, “and showed how previous equipment left this area vulnerable, and how his prototype solved that safety issue.”
Over the last two years, attendance in the program — dubbed both “Friday school” and “fifth day” — has ranged from six to 35 kids. It targets students from fourth to eighth grade, with the idea that including students any younger would lean more toward daycare than enrichment, while older kids often are working or pursuing athletics.
Even though the grant money now has run out, Reeves says, the district feels the program is so popular that it’s worth continuing. And since one goal of the program is to reach the district’s at-risk population, there’s no charge.
“With a certain small population of our kids, we’ve given them self-confidence,” Reeves says. “They’re engaging more with teachers to the point that every now and then, kids say they want to do this in class — because they learned it on Friday.”
Regular school hours, not regular school things
On most Fridays during the school year, many students in the four-day North Park, South Routt County and West Grand school districts go back to school.
They attend Colorado AeroLab, which operates during regular school hours on the fifth day. But it doesn’t do regular school things. The Denver-based nonprofit put together a STEM-oriented curriculum emphasizing curiosity, experimentation and lab work. Students play around with robots and 3-D printers and computer design. It’s free for middle and high school students.
“The real benefit is we’re in a position to offer kids more skill building and more exposure to the real world and what they need for the future,” says Elaine Menardi, an engineer-turned-educator who cofounded AeroLab. “We’re not tied to standardized tests. We have the freedom to expand kids’ knowledge in ways the regular school districts don’t have.”
Courses, taught by existing district teachers who don’t mind the extra pay, also focus on leadership, civic engagement and social impact. Last year, one group of students started attending local city council meetings and speaking out against trash in yards and lax enforcement of city codes. Another group concerned about bullying created a club for kids not involved in sports, drama or other organized groups.
“An inclusion club, they called it,” Menardi says.
The fifth-day option targets older kids. If it weren’t for AeroLab, Menardi says, “we’ve heard that most of them are sitting at home playing video games while their parents are at work.”
West Grand switched to four-day weeks around 2005. There was a promise of finding fifth-day alternatives for students and families, but regular options didn’t emerge. There’s still no program for younger kids.
“There’s really not much in place for any kind of fifth-day program for elementary students,” West Grand Superintendent Darrin Peppard says. “Having Colorado AeroLab approach us a little over a year ago was something really exciting and a great starting point. It gives our students an opportunity for enhanced learning.”
AeroLab is funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and operates learning centers inside West Grand middle and high schools in Kremmling, North Park schools in Walden, and Soroco High School in Oak Creek. Schools provide the classrooms, security, internet and transportation. AeroLab pays for mileage, staff and extra food-service workers. More than 250 kids have attended AeroLab since it started last year.
Currently, it costs AeroLab about $125,000 to run the program at each of the four sites — for a total of about $500,000 a school year. The federal grant takes care of most of the costs. But the grant runs out next year, so Menardi is also working on keeping the program sustainable. She plans to reapply for the grant as well as others that could help fund a program for elementary school children.
The program also collaborates with local businesses. Some of the empty space at the old Western Motel on Park Avenue in Kremmling will become AeroLab P40 WorkLab, which opens this fall. The classroom will be an entrepreneurial incubator for high-school students to create and operate their own startup business.
“The kids will have something else to add to their education, which is really important in the rural areas,” says Dave Skinner, the landlord who gave AeroLab a discount on rent, “because there’s not much to do around here.”
Farm life, 4-H and movie night
On Matthew and Michelle Gardner’s farm near Swink, in the lower Arkansas River Valley, the introduction of the four-day week presented no shortage of options for day five.
Their family operation raises primarily corn, alfalfa and sorghum, while partnering on a crop of cantaloupe and watermelon. So during a good portion of the school year, there’s plenty to do — even though their kids, sixth-grader Jennifer and third-grader Jake, haven’t quite reached the point of pitching in on major tasks.
“A lot of times if we’re harvesting or we’re in the middle of farming, it’s like you go with Mom and Dad and do whatever we’re doing, whether packing lunches for the crew or riding on the tractor or helping move equipment,” Michelle says. “A good portion of their summer is just helping out with whatever needs to be done on the farm.”
Jennifer can move vehicles around their property, though never on public roads. She and her brother can put twine in the baler, help count bales, or help their mom with lunches for a crew that numbers anywhere from two to 10, depending on the day.
“The kids are pretty involved in farm life, in general,” Michelle says. “With harvest coming up, they’ll be driving trucks, doing silage — more than cooking for their dad and for the crew.”
That fifth day — Fridays here — also opens up more time for 4-H activities. The kids take part in everything from robotics to livestock judging.
Although her kids may not get quite the classroom time they did in a five-day week, Michelle also points out that, for a community that requires more travel than others just to accomplish the usual run of appointments, the shorter school week allows time for the orthodontist, dentist and doctor that would otherwise require pulling kids out of class.
Besides, she says, in her house the learning doesn’t stop on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“I think there’s education in everything,” she says. “And we also forget sometimes that kids also just need a day off, and with the longer school days, it’s nice to be able to sleep in on Fridays, to chill and play with toys, have a little bit of downtime — things we teach adults that they need to do. I think it’s helping our kids to learn it’s OK to take an hour and just read a book you don’t have to read for school, or build with your Legos.”
Late last summer, when Swink switched to the four-day week, Michelle used Fridays to take them to pick apples or go to the museum. When winter arrived, they realized something else about the four-day week: Thursday was the new Friday.
With kids not having to rise early to get ready for school, the family could make use of those Thursday nights in ways they couldn’t before. So some traditions were launched.
“In the wintertime we like to have movie or game night on Thursday,” Gardner says. “We try not to do a lot of TV during the week. But Thursday night, there’s not the pressure to get up the next morning to get ready for school. So we’ll do that November, December and January. Then it’s back to farming.”
When the process is the program
In the Center Consolidated School District in the San Luis Valley, the four-day week came fast. The district adopted it in 2017 largely to compete with neighboring schools who were offering three-day weekends as a perk to attract and keep teachers.
It happened so quickly that there wasn’t much time to collect community feedback and do a lot of planning for the new reality of Fridays off, recalls Katrina Ruggles, a counselor who also manages grants for the district. She had launched a nonprofit organization a few years earlier to provide after-school programming in a donated building, but that appealed mostly to families with younger kids to fill the childcare need.
There wasn’t much for older kids that first year, which worried her. The community had been working hard to combat drug abuse and teen pregnancy and the efforts had shown progress. An extra unprogrammed day threatened to undo what they’d accomplished.
Center won a Donnell-Kay grant to implement a program and, about a year ago, Ruggles set it in motion. She put together an advisory group of high-school students, specifically targeting kids who were “maybe a little disengaged,” and accompanied them to a training session to learn how to go about gauging student interest and developing activities that would get them involved on Fridays.
The first semester of last year the students put out a survey, organized focus groups, created questionnaires, facilitated discussion about the types of things that might work. They took some of the common themes they heard and, in the second semester, started running pilot programs.
One focused on sports, one on art, another on science and a fourth simply involved swimming. Some went over better than others. An art activity drew only a few people, which disappointed the planners. Science fared better, as the kids connected with Adams State University on some STEM activities. A Nerf-gun battle proved to be a big success.
This year, Ruggles plans to start the process earlier in the school year and move more quickly. Four of her students last year were seniors, so now she’s looking to replace them with new potential leaders.
“Part of what I’m trying to do with young people is not only provide places to be, but provide skills for postsecondary life — communication, collaboration, advocacy, goal setting,” she says. “The process is as much about what we’re doing as events.”