With widespread support from educators and parents, the Powell school district is moving to a 4.5-day school week, starting in August.
A recent survey showed 88 percent of community members and staff favored early-release Fridays. To have that much support for an initiative “is almost unheard of,” said Jay Curtis, superintendent of Park County School District No. 1.
“To get that many people to agree on anything is pretty amazing,” he said. “I just think it’s right for Powell.”
The Powell school board unanimously approved adopting a 4.5 day calendar at its meeting last week.
Curtis said the switch to early-release Fridays is “an academic decision for us.”
He believes the change will have a positive impact on students’ academic performance, achievement and staff morale.
“It’s not just early release so we can have an early weekend,” said Greg Borcher, chairman of the board. “It’s for professional development.”
Under the current schedule, students get out early on 12 Wednesdays throughout the school year; staff members use that time for professional development.
With the new schedule, students will start school a little earlier and get out a little later on Mondays through Thursdays. While students will get out early every Friday, school employees will spend 18 of those Friday afternoons on professional development. All told, the new schedule allows for six additional half-days of professional development.
The schedule change came after an earlier survey about the calendar showed many parents and teachers wanted to examine a 4.5-day school week. A committee of about 25 employees from the district researched the initiative, and “the positives pretty much jumped off the page for us,” Curtis said.
Attendance data shows a lot of Powell High School students miss Fridays for sports and other activities. For
example, 125 PHS students missed more than an hour on a Friday last September while only 25 students did so that Wednesday.
By moving the early-release day to Fridays, every Wednesday can be a full day of instruction, when students are more likely to be at school.
“The more we have kids in class, and the more we have their qualified teachers in front of them, we think the better our kids are going to do,” Curtis said.
Teachers often miss Fridays to coach or support their own children in activities.
“I think it’s wonderful that they’re following their kids. Those kids deserve to be supported, and their parents deserve to be there cheering for them,” Curtis said.
The flip side is that they’re not in the classroom on those Fridays, he said.
Professional development Fridays will be scheduled around home games, when the highest percentage of teachers will be in town.
Curtis said he has faith in principals and administration to work out the details of the schedule.
Trustee Kimberly Condie said she read through the comments on the survey, and the main concerns were maintaining hours for paraprofessionals and childcare for families where both parents work.
Curtis said at first glance, it appears the district won’t have issues maintaining hours for paraprofessionals, but some of their hours may need to be adjusted throughout the week.
“I also made a promise that any person that currently has benefits will not lose benefits,” Curtis said. “We will ensure that they’re getting their hours.”
He said there was a concern about some of the secretaries’ hours, and “we’ll have to examine that for each person and come up with a solution.”
“I cannot sit here and promise that if a person is working 35 hours today that they’ll work 35 hours next year,” Curtis said, adding that there may be an hour or two difference.
“… we would work hard to make sure everyone is compensated at least similarly to what they are this year,” he said.
As for childcare on early-release Fridays, Curtis said the district has talked with people in the community and discussed some ideas. It’s possible that paraprofessionals who are short on hours could provide some after-school opportunities, though he noted that buses would not run later on Friday afternoons.
Condie said it’s important for the community to understand why the school district has early-release days.
Curtis said the research is really clear that the quality of teachers has a great impact on students’ achievement. Professional development days are intended to increase teachers’ capacity and knowledge.
The state of Wyoming requires 10 full professional development days per year. The 18 early-release Fridays will be in addition to those 10 days, Curtis said.
The 18 Fridays will be split into three parts: eight days for district-wide professional development; eight for school level professional development and two for teacher work days, Curtis said.
During district-wide days, staff will focus on requirements or training, such as CPR and school safety/security training.
The district-wide assessment system also requires time for grade-level teachers from all three schools to get together, Curtis said.
During school-level professional development days, principals have specific skills they want to focus on to move their schools forward, Curtis said.
Powell schools follow the Professional Learning Community model, and one of the hallmarks is that teachers are also learning, he said. Staff can use that time to learn together or work on problems they’ve identified.
If assessments show students are struggling in a particular area, then teachers know where they need to focus.
The two work days will allow teachers to have time to work in their classrooms.
“There are times in the year when there is more work to do than time to do it, like when you get to parent-teacher conferences,” Curtis said. “I’m not sure people know and understand just how much work goes into a teacher’s day to prepare for those parent conferences.”
He said it would probably surprise people how many teachers are in their classrooms on Sundays, preparing for their students and sacrificing time with their own families.
On Fridays when teachers do not have professional development, they will have the afternoon off.
Chairman Borcher said the board needs to commit to the change for two to three years to see whether the new schedule works for Powell schools.
A number of school districts around Wyoming follow a 4.5-day schedule. Crook County School District will start a four-day week this fall, following a 5-1 vote from its school board last month.
“As a board, we thought it was a way to keep more kids in school for more hours, because at these smaller schools they’re all doing sports or extra-curriculars,” Brian Marchant, chairman of the Sundance-based board, was quoted as saying in a Sundance Times article.
Curtis and the school board commended the work of the Powell school district committee members who researched the 4.5-day school week.
“It was obvious that a lot of work went into it,” said Trustee Kim Dillivan.