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Brynn O'Donnell, left, and Alicia Nevarez join fellow students in learning fact strategies with addition and subtraction in Barbara Haggerty's third-grade classroom at Pennock Elementary School in Brighton, one of 111 Colorado school districts on a four-day school week. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Back when he was a school teacher on the Eastern Plains, Frank Reeves was no fan of four-day school weeks.

“I fought it and fought it,” Reeves said.

But now that he’s the superintendent of the East Grand School District in Granby, Reeves said, “I just don’t see a difference” academically.

There’s no question something feels troubling about the rise of the four-day school week in Colorado, which has more districts on a four-day schedule than any other state. There are 111 Colorado school districts operating on a compressed schedule, a stat cited again and again as evidence of the failures of the state’s school finance system.

 Is 4 the Answer? 

Colorado has more districts on four-day weeks than any state in the country. The Sun is investigating the effects of the shortened week on students, parents and schools in all corners of the state.

Day 1
Colorado now has more schools on four-day weeks than any place in the nation — with little research on their benefits

Day 2
What are students doing with the “Fifth Day”?

At the state Capitol, four-day weeks aren’t seen as a problem to be solved.

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But not only is the four-day week not a priority to be fixed at the state Capitol, there isn’t even broad consensus that it’s a problem to be solved.

The Colorado Sun interviewed school officials, lawmakers and childhood education advocates across the political spectrum as part of its series on four-day schools and found that while many are uncomfortable with the trend, the shrinking of the school week receives surprisingly little attention in a state where education has long been a top political issue.

“When we have listening tours, nobody’s complaining,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and former teacher who chairs the House Education Committee. “We have not heard any complaints or requests to even look into it.”

Specifics vary from district to district, but Reeves’ change of heart is one shared by a number of school administrators and teachers. And even among those who would prefer to teach the traditional five days, the length of the school week pales in comparison to other concerns, like school finance, teacher pay and the recent passage of full-day kindergarten funding.

“A lot of communities are making it work,” said Leslie Colwell, the vice president of K-12 Education Initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “I don’t necessarily think that it’s the best trend, and I would hate to see all of our school districts go to four-day weeks.”

But, she added, “that wouldn’t be my top priority in terms of all the things that need be fixed.”

“They love it.”

Like most of the districts that would follow, East Grand cited financial reasons when it switched to a four-day week back in 1983. The mountain district was among the first in Colorado to adopt a compressed schedule.

Some 36 years later, those budget concerns remain. But Reeves said he can’t envision his district switching back to a five-day week, even if it had the money.

“It’s never addressed or talked about,” Reeves said. “They’ve grown so accustomed to a four-day week that they (the district’s residents) love it.”

In East Grand, which includes Winter Park, Fridays off are the norm for many businesses that give their employees three-day weekends to hit the slopes. The four-day instruction schedule is attractive for other reasons elsewhere in the state, like eliminating a day of hour-long bus commutes in far-flung rural communities.

Big Sandy Schools superintendent Steve Wilson shows a map of the more than 500 square miles that make up the school district. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When the Big Sandy School District in El Paso County switched to four-day weeks in the 1990s, it provided a leg up in recruiting teachers. Steve Wilson, the superintendent there, has seen that competitive advantage fade as more districts offer the same perk. But like Reeves in East Grand, he doesn’t see any reason to change back.

“Our students do very well academically,” Wilson said. The district earned the state’s top accreditation each of the past two years.

In other districts, the switch to a four-day week is viewed as a dubious milestone — an acknowledgement that it’s run out of things to cut.

The Colorado Department of Education doesn’t take a position on whether schools should attend school for five days or four. Students just have to hit a certain number of classroom hours in the year, ranging from 900 hours for full-day kindergarten to 1,080 hours for secondary students. “If they want a school calendar of less than 160 days, however they want to fit that in is OK,” said Jeremy Meyer, a spokesman for the department.

Four-day weeks, full-day K

The broad, bipartisan coalition that emerged in support of Gov. Jared Polis’ push this year to fund full-day kindergarten provides a telling counterpoint to the politics of four-day school weeks: No such coalition exists calling for a return to a five-day week.

Lawmakers, school officials and education advocates say there’s an obvious reason for that. In contrast to the five-day week, there’s widespread evidence pointing to the importance of kindergarten in a child’s educational development.

“These are the most impactful education dollars we can spend,” Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said of full-day kindergarten funding. “We should’ve done it years ago.”

And most of the 178 districts across the state — including many of those on a four-day schedule — were already providing full-day K, even with the state providing funding only for a partial day. “It’s almost a necessity in rural areas,” said Reeves, the East Grand superintendent. “We don’t have the day care opposite of a half day.”

For East Grand, the additional funding will free up money to add staff and boost teacher salaries. In districts that have been charging tuition for full-day K, it will mean money back into parents’ pockets. And in a handful of districts, it will actually mean a switch to full-day from half-day.

“Why didn’t we go (to full-day) before? Because it would take money away from salaries and benefits,” said Wilson, the Big Sandy superintendent.

West Grand Middle School student Callie Freitag shares her big life dream to be the world’s greatest Lego builder during a fifth-day enrichment program run by Colorado AeroLab. (Photo provided by Hannah Glines)

But while full-day kindergarten funding provides different benefits for different districts, lawmakers say they don’t have a similar mechanism to address four-day weeks. Even if they gave every four-day district in the state more money, many would likely decide that money is better spent on things other than a fifth day of instruction.

“Really, it’s up to them,” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, who co-chairs an interim committee on school finance. “Do I think four-day versus five-day is resolved by just state dollars? I honestly don’t.”

Instead, Lundeen thinks lawmakers should focus on overhauling the state’s broader school funding formula — a goal that’s shared by education advocates on the left and the right. An interim committee has been studying sweeping changes to how Colorado pays for schools for two years now, but a party-line debate over whether higher taxes are needed has long been a barrier to reform.

It’s likely within that broader context of school finance that four-day weeks could start to get more attention from lawmakers. 

“If a school district is making this decision because it is the right fit for them and it’s promoting extended learning opportunities with that fifth day, that’s great,” said Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat. “When a school district is making that decision to go to that four-day week because they have to save money to pay teachers … that’s a problem.

“Funding is our responsibility, and it’s a concern,” she said.

“What suffers?” Lawmakers aren’t sure.

The neutrality of the state Department of Education, coupled with a constitution that limits the state’s ability to dictate school policy at the local level, has created an unusual dynamic at the General Assembly.

On the one hand, many agree that the overall trend is bad. On the other, it’s not clear that it’s a problem in every case — and to the extent that it is, the legislature is limited by the state constitution in how it can respond. School districts are granted local control over most of their operations, including the school calendar.

As a result, said McCluskie, the Dillon Democrat, the issue isn’t as straightforward as it appears.

“If that (a four-day week) means they’re able to retain that high-quality teacher, that very well could be leading to better outcomes for our kids,” McCluskie said. “But I think with any policy decision, you’ve got to be making it with the student first and foremost in mind.”

McLachlan, the House Education chair, said she suspects there are academic downsides to four-day weeks — the problem is, she hasn’t seen any studies to explore what they are.

The national research on the academic effects of four-day weeks is inconclusive, with the handful of studies that exist in conflict about whether scores improve or decline. One of the most comprehensive reviews, from Oregon State University, found that scores dropped overall after schools switched to four-day weeks, but boys and students who qualify for free or reduced lunch had their scores drop the most. 

The OSU researchers plan to study how four-day school affects not just academics, but kids’ sleep and nutrition. In some Colorado schools, nonprofits provide bags of food for needy kids to take home for the weekend. The Food Bank of the Rockies provides weekend food for students of District 27J in Brighton, which is on the four-day schedule, but students get the same amount of food regardless of whether the weekend is two days or three, according to Hunger Free Colorado.

At East Grand, Reeves has noticed both pros and cons. On the one hand, parents who can spend more time with their kids on Fridays often do. But for those who can’t stay home from work, three days can be a long time away from the classroom, he said — particularly for younger students.

McLachlan says it’s time for Colorado to do a comprehensive study of its own now that a majority of districts have made the switch.“I want to know how they reorganize their day; if the kids and teachers are exhausted at the end of that longer, 10-hour day; how sports fit in there,” McLachlan said. “When do you actually have family time?”

“What suffers? I think something suffers, and it may be something that’s completely irrelevant and it may be something major,” she said.

Brian Eason writes about the Colorado state budget, tax policy, PERA and housing. He's passionate about explaining how our government works, and why it often fails to serve the public interest. Topic expertise: Public finance, tax policy,...