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What The Colorado Sun learned visiting four-day schools across the state

Takeaways from The Sun’s series examining the rising number of districts in the state that have dropped a fifth day of school

Third-grade teacher Marsha DeHerrera supervises her students as they work on a "Fabulous Me" assignment at La Jara Elementary School Aug. 21, 2019. The school is part of the North Conejos School District and operates on a four-day week where students attend classes for nearly eight hours per day. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado Sun reporters spent several weeks exploring the reasons so many school districts in the state have switched to a four-day week, and its effect on students, teachers and families. 

We wrote three stories examining the situation:

Here are the highlights and big takeaways from our series…

Colorado leads the nation in the number of districts on a four-day week

  • This fall, 111 out of 178 school districts in Colorado go to school four days instead of five. Nationwide, there are about 600 districts that have gone to a four-day instruction schedule. 
  • Most are rural, but more urban districts in Brighton and Pueblo also have switched. Brighton, called 27J, is the largest in the country to drop a day. It has 19,000 students and 26 schools. 
  • The trend is not slowing. In the last four years, 27 Colorado districts have switched all or some of their schools to four-day weeks. The number has doubled since 2005. 

School districts cite budget constraints, teacher recruitment and way of life

Districts looking for savings in transportation or building costs, like air conditioning and heat, have made the switch. 

Several said dropping the fifth instruction day helps schools that can’t afford to compete on salary to recruit teachers. 

Most districts added time to the school day to reach the required number of instruction hours, but Leadville is adding days to the school calendar.

But how does it affect academics? 

The research is limited and inconclusive. 

  • A 2015 study of Colorado schools, published in the journal Education and Finance Policy, found four-day weeks have a positive impact on student achievement, noting slightly higher scores in math and reading.
  • But a 2019 report from Oregon State University found that four-day weeks have “detrimental effects” on the achievement of Oregon students. The study was different from the Colorado research because it looked not at schools’ average test scores, but the scores of individual students. It found that both boys and girls saw math and reading scores drop on standardized tests, but that boys’ scores dropped more.
  • A Colorado Sun analysis found four-day schools are more likely to have higher percentages of children who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Also, scores on standardized tests are slightly lower on average than five-day schools.

How are communities using the “Fifth Day”?

As more Colorado districts adopt the four-day school week, the extra weekday out of the classroom presents both challenges and opportunities for innovation

Here are some examples: 

  • Having Mondays off gives kids in the Lone Star School District who compete in rodeo time to catch up on chores and homework. (Several students in the small but high-achieving district in northeast Colorado are in college on full-ride rodeo scholarships.)
  • Many kids in the East Grand School District, which includes Winter Park, don’t have the resources to ski on days off. So the district used a Donnell-Kay Foundation grant to create a Fifth Day program that helps kids pursue their specific interests in creative ways.
  • Students in West Grand, South Routt County and North Park districts attend Colorado AeroLab on the fifth day, where they explore with robots and 3-D printers and computer design. 
  • Community programs, like 4-H, and work on family farms can help keep kids in some rural areas busy. In places like Swink, Thursday is the new Friday night, which means  activities like movie night and game night.

What about the politics? 

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.

  • 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.
  • “When we have listening tours, nobody’s complaining,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and former teacher who chairs the House Education Committee. 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. “What suffers? I think something suffers, and it may be something that’s completely irrelevant and it may be something major.”

Thoughts? Comments? Email 4day@coloradosun.com.

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