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As fuel skyrockets, schools might consider shortening week

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By Shannon Brock

With the costs of gasoline and diesel fuel rising, several school districts in Kentucky are throwing around the idea of a four-day school week, but Anderson County isn't one of them - yet.

Superintendent Kim Shaw said there has been no talk of a four-day school week in this district, but it is something the school system might need to look into.

"As fuel costs and other energy costs go up, we have to consider all our options," Shaw said. "It's something our district probably needs to study."

But Shaw said he's not a fan of cutting back the days students are in school.

"Personally, as an educator, I'd like to see students in school more days and not less," Shaw said, adding that the General Assembly lengthened the school year by two days a few years ago.

However, Shaw said he does understand why school districts are investigating the option.

"With the economy and fuel prices they way they are, all of us have to stop and take a look at how we do business," he said.

With Shaw's OK, the Anderson County Education Association is researching the idea, said Lisa Petry-Kirk, the association's president and a teacher at Anderson County Middle School.

Petry-Kirk said the idea of a four-day week is something the district should learn more about.

"If it has the potential to save the district some money and doesn't compromise the education of our children it could be a win-win," she said. "But before making such a move, it should be thoroughly studied and the benefits weighed against the negatives."

Petry-Kirk said it would be difficult to make a generalization as to local teachers' thoughts on a four-day week.

"I would say that most teachers haven't really considered the idea," she said. "There are so few counties in Kentucky under the plan that most people haven't given it much thought.

"What I do know is that teachers in this county want to do what is going to benefit kids and I believe that if the study were to find it in the best interest of our children they would be behind it. Anderson County is blessed with great teachers who make great decisions for kids everyday."

Shaw said he planned to attend a Kentucky School Board Association conference over the weekend where he would sit in on a session about four-day school weeks.

The Webster County school system in Western Kentucky was the first public school district in the state to implement a four-day school week and its superintendent, James Kemp, was scheduled to lead that session.

The only other public school system in Kentucky currently on a four-day school week is Jenkins Independent Schools in Letcher County, and that district modeled its program after Webster County.

Webster County made the decision to cut back its school week to four days in 2003, and back then fuel was only one of the factors contributing to the decision, Kemp said.

The school system saw budget cuts in both state and local revenue, received state funding reductions during the 2002-03 school year and predicted more for the 2003-04 school year, but it wanted to continue the level of academic and extra-curricular activities instead of cutting back in those areas, according to the district's website.

Once the idea of a four-day school week came up, it was thoroughly researched and the district decided it was the best option, Kemp said.

With a four-day school week, students do not lose any instructional time. Instead, the school days are lengthened.

According to the Webster County Schools website, the average instructional time per school day in Webster County is now over 6.5 hours, adding up to a total of 1,067 instructional hours each year - 17 hours more than its previous five-day week calendar. (Webster County's last five-day week calendar was in 2002-03, before the state added on two extra days to the school year.)

Currently, Anderson County students receive an average of 6.5 hours instructional time on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and 5 hours on Wednesdays, adding up to a total of 1,088 hours each year, Shaw said.

State law requires districts to have a minimum of 1,062 instructional hours.

During the first year of implementation, Kemp estimates the district saved 5 to 8 percent of its Fund 1 budget.

Part of those savings came from fuel, but also through not needing as many substitute teachers for professional development days and in general. The professional development days now take place on Monday - the day of the week students are not in school.

Kemp said Webster County also saw a reduction in insurance rates. Even though the district has some three-day weeks and some five-day weeks (during the beginning of the year and during state testing), the calendar was dubbed as being a four-day week calendar.

"When the community started calling it a four-day week, so did the insurance company," Kemp said.

To determine which day of the week would become a non-instructional day, Kemp said the district scientifically looked at the day of the week students missed the most.

"Statistically, that day was Monday," he said.

Kemp said the federal government also helped out a lot because many federal holidays fall on Monday. The students get some consistency by not being in school on that day of the week, he said.

The school district also asked area businesses, such as doctors and dentists, to help students schedule appointments on Mondays, and for the most part, they complied, Kemp said.

During the first four-day week school year, Webster County attendance rates were at 94.9 percent. Each year since then (with the exception of the past year because statistics are not in yet), attendance has been over 95 percent.

A 1 percent increase might not seem like much, Kemp said, but because funding is based on attendance, the district now receives that much more in SEEK funds.

Kemp said the district hasn't just saved money, but it has taken that money and reinvested it in valuable programs. Since going to a four-day week in 2003, none of the districts programs have been cut, Kemp said, and some programs have been implemented that otherwise wouldn't have been affordable.

Since starting a four-day week, Webster County has added a full-day kindergarten program, started testing students regularly and periodically to check the progress of their learning, started the Trojan Academy, which allows students extra instruction with specific teachers, and started a child watch program, which trains secondary students to learn the skills required to watch younger children.

Also, since going to a four-day week, Webster County Schools have risen in state rankings based on CATS scores, Kemp said.

"We've gone from 115th to 53rd," he said.

A four-day school week might not be for everyone, but it has worked in Webster County, Kemp said. Districts can't expect to drop to a four-day week and see instant improvement, but they have to work for that improvement, he said.

Kemp said school systems in Kentucky are always being encouraged to do something different.

"If the (school) board is willing to take a step outside the box, they will feel empowered to take the next step," he said.

Kemp is pleased that his district was out in front, making changes before fuel costs hit record highs.

"If some tragedy strikes, I know we're still four years ahead," he said.