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A rural school system in western Massachusetts, the Mohawk Trail Regional School District, is considering shrinking its school week to just four days. And it wouldn't be the first to do that.
More than 120 school districts nationwide have already made the change and say it's lowered costs, helped reduce disciplinary issues and absenteeism, and even raised morale.
This week, Mohawk's School Committee gave its superintendent the go-ahead to do more research on the pros and cons of switching to a four-day week.
WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer spoke about the possible change with a school official who said the 965-student district — which spans eight towns and covers 250 square miles -- is considering the move due to declining enrollment and rising costs.
Bob Aeschback, School Committee chairman for Mohawk Trail Regional School District, former school librarian, and father of two Mohawk district graduates
Bob Aeschback: Right now, out of the eight towns, on an average they pay 55% of their budget for education. As a responsible school committee, we understand that the towns only have so much money to spend. And everyone has their — you know, it's the old thing: not in my backyard. Everyone has their favorite program. Don't cut sports, don't cut drama, don't cut after-school transportation, and there's only so much money to spend around
Sacha Pfeiffer: If you did reduce to a four-day school week, how much do you think that would that save you and where would savings come from?
The savings would come from transportation because we'd only be funding transportation four days rather than five. It would come from auxiliary services, food services, paraprofessionals. And unfortunate thing is these are people who are minimal paid, but we'd only need them four days a week rather than five. It would come from heating, it would come from other things, like custodial cleaning of buildings.
You've also found that there could be benefits beyond just money saving.
Some research indicates that you'll have better teacher attendance, better student attendance, better student grades. It gives the student who is holding a part-time job another day to be working. On the flip side, we know out here [that] since most of our working families travel an hour or more to work one way, there's a whole issue of child care. Some of these families live up — I put it this way — up a dirt road and at night you can see the neighbor's light, but that's how close the neighbor is.
So on that one day of the week when there was no school they'd need some oversight for the kids?
That's one of the things we need to explore. Could we be running enrichment programs? Extra educational support? So that a family with both parents working — again, what do we do? Like when there's a snow day, which we have a number of them out here; that is certainly difficult for many families. We have to have professional development time for the staff, so there's half-day school days. That creates a strain on families.
I assume that if you take what is now a five-day week and put it in a four-day week, classes might have to become longer on those four days.
We're anticipating our school day would extend about 90 minutes. And can an elementary child in a younger grade be focused for that amount of time?
Or, I imagine, if you are taking in more information in one concentrated amount of time, does that affect your learning or how you absorb it at all?
Well, this is it, and there are some studies that say it helps students perform better. These are all things we're going to be researching.
If this were to go into effect, who would have had to approve it? Do you need sign-off from all the towns, from the parents, anything from the state?
We'd have to have an approval from, first of all, the [state] Department of Education because you're not doing it by 180 days; you're doing it by hours. So that's the first hurdle you have to pass. And then the School Committee, but the School Committee would certainly do it with the input of the people.
I get the sense that you've fielded a lot of people who are skeptical or maybe worried about this because you seem very quick to say, 'We're just studying it, we're going to consider all the downsides of this.' What kind of reaction have you gotten?
People were blindsided by it. People all of a sudden saw this on the front page of the Greenfield Recorder — Mohawk investigating four-day school week — and immediately some of them jumped to the conclusion, "Oh my God, it's going start next September."
Right, and we want to be clear here in our conversation with you that this is just an idea, this is only in the research phase.
From your perspective as a former educator and a parent, what do you think about this? What do you think of a four-day work week?
I think it's something we certainly need to explore, because to provide a quality, affordable education we've got to start looking outside the box.
Such as in this way?
Such as in this way. Otherwise, as one Selectboard member said to me, what happens when a school takes 70% of our local budget? How do we buy fire engines, highway trucks, sand for the road and other services that towns want?
This segment aired on January 10, 2014.