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State Board of Education green-lights 4 day school week in Piute County

The main entrance of Piute High School in Junction, UT. (Courtesy of Koby Willis, Piute County School District Superintendent)
Courtesy of Koby Willis
The main entrance of Piute High School in Junction, UT. (Courtesy of Koby Willis, Piute County School District Superintendent)

The Utah State Board of Education approved a request from the Piute County School District to transition to a four-day school week starting in the 2023-2024 school year. District superintendent Koby Willis said the motivation is not to save money, but to give students more time for learning experiences outside of school.

“Especially in a place like Piute County where it can be [an] hour’s drive to anything, giving our kids as many opportunities as possible to experience more of the world is going to be very valuable to their education and our portrait of a graduate.”

There are only 260 students in the Southern Utah district, according to fall 2022 enrollment data. But a lot of them are missing out on class time because of athletic events Willis said. If students are competing against a school in Monticello, it would take over four hours to get there. Students might not even go to school that day.

“So we actually pick up more instruction time with those students by going to the four day week.”

Even for those who aren’t playing a sport, some students spend almost an hour on the bus getting to school each morning. Willis imagines students can use the extra day for things like part-time jobs, work-based learning or working with their family on a cattle drive.

“The bus ride from Koosharem to Piute High School is one of the longest bus rides in Utah. The 4 day school week removes well over 50 hours on a school bus for these students in a school year. This is valuable time that could be used for family, homework, or other activities that contribute to a child’s development,” the district wrote in its request to the board.

The district is still working out the calendar for next year, but Willis said elementary school students will go to school between 7:55 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. instead of between 8:00 A.M. and 2:30 P.M. High School students will start at the same time they are now, 8:00 A.M., but will go until 3:30 P.M. instead of 3:00 P.M. The lunch period for high school students will also be five minutes shorter, but won’t be changed for elementary school students. All students will have Friday off. Willis said teacher compensation will not be affected by the changes.

A shorter school week won’t be new for the district. Piute High School had four day weeks throughout the 1980s and 90s, but Willis said in 2002 the State Superintendent said the district had to go back to five day weeks.

Moving to shorter school weeks is a growing trend nationwide, especially in rural areas, according to Emily Morton, a research scientist at the education nonprofit NWEA. Morton said on average, students at schools that move to a four day school week see small to medium negative effects on test scores after adopting the policy,

“Basically, they’re [student test scores are] growing less fast than they would have if they stayed on five days a week. And the way we look at that is looking at similar five day week districts that are nearby, sort of controlling for things that might make them different.”

However, Morton said non-rural school districts are likely to see bigger negative effects than rural districts. The negative effects in rural districts are small or sometimes negligible. Also, Morton said that schools that have longer days after switching to the shorter week have seen minimal impacts.

The Piute County School District looked at the research on negative effects of shorter school weeks, Willis said, specifically research done by the RAND Corporation. He hopes they will be able to avoid problems because their motivation for doing this is for the students and not saving money.

“We're hoping to get more in some of these other areas, some of these intangibles that we don't measure with multiple choice tests,” he said.

A shorter school week is not all good or bad, Morton said, there are tradeoffs, and the effectiveness depends on why a school is doing it. She said the discussion around shorter school weeks brings up questions about what matters in education and what states value.

“It's a complicated story, and I think it depends a lot on what you think the community gets out of it and what the relative value of the benefits and costs are.”

Morton said parents and students in rural areas that have four day school weeks have loved it.

With four day school weeks, Morton worries about students who don’t have a safe home, access to healthy meals or other resources. Willis said he shares that concern, and that while students will have every Friday off, certain Fridays will be work days for teachers and staff. On those days, some services, like tutoring, will be available.

“But we ultimately feel like the other services in the community that are provided are strong. We have a food bank in the community, even though we're pretty small. We have pretty active organizations that are providing support for low-income families in other ways,” he said.

As a part of the agreement with the state board, the district will periodically survey parents, students and staff on the effectiveness of the policy. The district may also have to report things like standardized test scores and attendance data. After the 2026-2027 school year, the district will have to reapply to the board in order to keep having shorter weeks.

A tricky part of measuring the effectiveness of these types of policies, Morton said, is that even if test scores are staying the same or improving, that might not be the full picture.

“But the real question is would [test scores] have grown more if they didn't adopt the four days per week?” Morton said. “ Unfortunately, it sort of requires a master's in statistics to really be able to look at this really well.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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