Valley elementary schools discuss switching to a four-day school week

Both Seeley Lake and Swan Valley Elementary School Boards are discussing switching to a four-day school week.

A couple nearby schools — Seeley Lake High School and Potomac School being two examples — have adopted the four-day school week schedule, and statewide, as of 2022, 222 schools operate four days a week out of 826 total schools, according to the state Office of Public Instruction.

Staff, board members and parents at both elementary schools are weighing the pros and cons of making the switch. Factors like better staff retention and recruitment, better student attendance and lower staff absence, a more aligned schedule for students in extracurricular activities and better chances for students and their families to enjoy the opportunities that come with living in rural areas are seen as pros, while worries about childcare, nutrition and quality of education come up as concerns.

Both schools provided parents and community members with surveys to answer questions and give feedback about switching to a four-day school week. Swan Valley Elementary’s survey is still ongoing and can be found on the school’s Facebook page or website. Seeley Elementary’s survey closed, and School Board President Doc Welter was surprised by the results.

“I thought there would be more push-back from parents about the four-day week because this is something so brand new,” Welter said.

One hundred and seventeen people responded to Seeley Elementary’s survey as either parents, staff or community members. Welter said 80 parents responded, which is roughly half of the parents who have children at the school.

In response to a question that asked whether respondents thought Seeley Lake Elementary School should stick with a five-day school week, 24 people either agreed or strongly agreed and 68 disagreed or strongly disagreed. These numbers include parents, staff members and community members. The remainder responded with neither agree or disagree.

Out of just the people who identified as parents in the survey, 61 either agreed or strongly agreed that a four-day school week would improve teacher retention and seven either disagreed or strongly disagreed. Fifty-nine parents agreed or strongly agreed that the switch would be better for students, while 13 disagreed or strongly disagreed. The remainders in both cases responded with neither agree or disagree.

Fifty-three people — parents, staff and community members — said they had no concerns about the switch to a four-day school week.

The primary concerns survey respondents had were centered on childcare, 39 responses; length of the school day, 30 responses; source of food for those in need, 22 responses; and quality of instruction, 16 respondents.

A variety of other questions were asked in the survey, including one on concerns around whether the four-day week would be too tiring for younger students, and Welter said the full results would be presented at a community meeting that happened on March 27. Swan Valley Elementary School’s survey mirrored Seeley Elementary’s.

Seeley Elementary has three staff openings currently, Welter said. When looking to hire teachers, the school is competing for applicants with schools that have already adopted the four-day school week. Welter said Seeley Elementary is at a disadvantage because teachers prefer the four-day schedule. He remembered a candidate calling about an opening at the school and sounding interested, until hearing the school wasn’t on a four-day school week and backed out.

“This would definitely have a positive impact on our ability to recruit and retain teachers,” Welter said.

On the other hand, Welter said his first two concerns about the switch were similar to a lot of the survey respondents — child care and nutrition.

Welter said approximately 67% of the student body gets free and reduced lunch at the elementary school. Seeley Elementary would continue offering free and reduced lunch on Fridays, Welter said.

Swan Valley Elementary School Principal Angela Mock recently attended a Principals Conference in Butte, sponsored by the School Administrators of Montana. Among the attendees, Mock said she was one of few who represented a Class C school still on a five-day schedule.

“The discussion included scope and sequence of curriculum being comparable (to a five-day week), student outcomes at expected levels and some cost savings for the smaller schools has been evident,” Mock said via email.

Mock said a big bonus of that four-day schedule is having an extra day for families to get things like appointments done, which could help improve student and staff attendance. This could also draw down substitute teachers and transportation costs.

During a discussion focused on Class C Schools, all conversation was in support of a four-day school week, Mock said, and the only drawback was around nutrition.

As it stands, Swan Valley Elementary School doesn’t offer free and reduced lunch, or lunch in general, since the school doesn’t have a cafeteria.

Swan Valley Elementary School Board member Sara Lamar said concerns about child care were one of the first things the board heard from parents about changing the schedule.

Lamar said some schools that have switched to a four-day week use Fridays for individual learning opportunities or to help students with any catch-up. She said the schedule provides more of a chance for families to go hunting together on a Friday, for example, letting parents with families who might not have a traditional 9-5, Monday through Friday, schedule enjoy the offerings of rural Montana.

“I used to work a little bit more often with Potomac in my education job and I only heard positive things from parents or teachers about really feeling like it just gave them a lot more flexibility,” Lamar said, who taught various educational programs at Swan Valley Connections, a nonprofit dedicated to stewardship of the Swan Valley.

In that job, Lamar worked with Potomac School students when they were bussed to Swan Valley Connections for occasional field trips on Fridays. Potomac School was able to secure a three-year grant to pay for activities on the typical fifth day of a school week.

Lamar said Swan Valley Connections is there to serve the community, and would be interested in working with the school and families to supply some type of additional educational opportunity if needed. Mock said the 21st Century Grant, which Swan Valley Schools receive, could help fund extra learning opportunities for students, too.

Swan Valley Elementary School will be discussing the four-day school week further at its board meeting on April 9 at 6 p.m at the Swan Valley School. Survey responses will be accepted until April 8 and are available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/9WLQQV5.

Seeley Lake Elementary School will have a special board meeting on April 3 at 5:30 p.m. at the elementary school in the technology room to discuss the four-day school week.

 

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