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What this school district learned from a 4-day week

Since the Great Recession, a growing number of school districts have downsized the school week from five days to four. With our partner Education Week, special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza traveled to Bayard, New Mexico, to visit a school district that just completed its first year with the reduced school schedule. It's another installment of our weekly education series, Making the Grade.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's back to school season around the country, which makes it a good time to look at a trend under way in many school districts.

    Many of them have switched from a five-day week to four days, particularly in Western states. In Colorado, for example, more than half of all districts now follow a four-day week, in New Mexico, around 40 percent.

    But officials in New Mexico have placed a moratorium on the practice because of their concerns about the impact.

    Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza with our partner Education Week visited New Mexico to see a school district that just completed its first year of the change for weekly segment Making the Grade.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Alexis Parela and Michael Lazano's reactions to the shortened week couldn't be more different.

  • Alexis Parela:

    When I heard that this was moving from five to four, I was like, yes!

  • Michael Lazano:

    I kind of don't like it a little bit, because I just really want to learn about things.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    A year ago, Cobre Consolidated School District moved to a four-day week to save money. Now on Fridays, schools are closed.

    Overall, students spend 22 fewer days in class, even though they have longer days and shortened breaks.

    Superintendent Robert Mendoza says 90 percent of parents agreed with the change.

  • Robert Mendoza:

    Overall, it's been real positive.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    But Howie Morales, a former-teacher-turned-state-senator, has serious concerns about a four-day week.

  • Sen. Howie Morales, D-N.M.:

    What are the positives of going to a four-day school week? What are the negatives? I want every single opportunity for my children and other children to have to learn.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Georgia Heyward is a researcher with the University of Washington Bothell.

    She says, while most districts shorten school weeks to save money, they don't save much.

  • Georgia Heyward:

    There's very little savings in the four-day school week. It might be 2 percent of the district's budget.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Cobre school saved $71,000 the first year, far less than the $160,000 they projected.

    But Mendoza there are other advantages. It's such a geographically notch school district, it saves students time.

  • Robert Mendoza:

    They ride a long time in the buses, an hour-and-a-half to come and an hour-and-a-half to go back home. So, that's three hours a day.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Sixth-grade teacher Laura Brown says a big reason she moved to Cobre schools, the four-day week.

  • Laura Brown:

    I feel that extra day gave me that possible one day off to rest and recover as well. But it also — it made my classroom and my teaching that much better, because my lesson plans were better, more in-depth.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    It also meant she could start a district-wide drama club on Fridays.

  • Laura Brown:

    Hours and hours and hours went in on our days off to bring those kiddos in. It was their day off too. Not once did we have one kid missing.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    New Mexico has a teaching shortage. Mendoza says that is particularly a problem in rural districts like this one, where there's usually the only one educator for each grade who teaches all subjects.

  • Robert Mendoza:

    Right before we went to this, we had a hard time filling. We had vacancies. And this year, we have none.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Student Brianna Martinez's week is jampacked.

  • Brianna Martinez:

    I play volleyball, basketball, and softball. And it's while I'm involved in National Honor Society, student council, and I'm a class officer.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    But she was always stressed trying to juggle everything. Not anymore.

  • Brianna Martinez:

    A lot of our games are now scheduled on Friday, which is awesome for but.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Like many parents here, coach Randy Dominguez works at the copper mines.

  • Randy Dominguez:

    As a coach, it is beneficial just being that we could bring in the girls and — or the boys in on Fridays and get a little bit extra work in.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    And as a father of three, it's tough to find child care. His wife works full-time as well, so they have to rely on family.

  • Randy Dominguez:

    There are times where we're like we don't know exactly what we're going to do.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    At first, high school teacher Kathy Ryan didn't like the idea.

  • Kathy Ryan:

    My first reservation had to be with, how am I going to teach everything that I need to with one less day a week?

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Now she prefers the longer class periods and full days of professional development. Ryan also says more of her students show up.

  • Kathy Ryan:

    My absenteeism has diminished quite a bit.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    It's not just students. Teacher attendance improved as well. In fact, the district's biggest saving was from substitute teachers.

    But does Ryan worry about what her students do on Fridays?

  • Kathy Ryan:

    Well, I teach high school, so I worry about what they do every day.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    There are concerns outside school.

  • Sonya Dixon:

    I was dumbfounded.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Sonya Dixon runs the Bayard Public Library. She beefed up programming on Fridays, but didn't see a big increase in attendance. Also, she found parents were dropping off the kids for hours unattended while they worked, so Dixon had to limit library time.

    She's not in favor of the four-day week.

  • Sonya Dixon:

    It's great for teachers. They love it. And why wouldn't they? But I see a lot of grandparents and relatives seemingly a little overwhelmed and burdened.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    New Mexico ranks last in the nation for child well-being, according to the 2018 Kids Count Data Book.

    It's Friday. Volunteers are packing food supplies for almost 300 kids to take home for the traditional two-day weekend at a neighboring school district.

    John Conway, who runs the program, says he worries about what kids on three-day weekends will eat.

  • John Conway:

    we have large percent of the population that are below the poverty level. They may be hungry and not getting enough to eat, particularly on the weekend.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Athletic events are now held on Fridays.

    Howie Morales, the state senator, says he is seeing a domino effect when larger urban school districts also want to change to four-day weeks. He's worked to temporarily stop the practice until he gets answers.

  • Sen. Howie Morales, D-N.M.:

    How are the students performing? Is it really helping as far as financially in savings for the school district? What's going to happen in an economic development and a jobs perspective when parents may have to take Fridays off and care for their kids?

    We have to get a handle of it to see if it's something that we should allow all school districts to do, or this something that we need to put the brakes on?

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Research Georgia Heyward says there's no consensus on how four-day weeks affect academics.

  • Georgia Heyward:

    There's been a bunch of different research, some of it rigorous, some not. And, basically, we see kind of neutral impact.

    So students over time do about the same as they did on the five-day school week.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    This year, Cobre schools saw an increase in reading and math test scores overall, but it's unclear what the impact is on students who struggle academically and might need more time in class.

    The debate is far from over. Even after a year, sixth-graders Michael and Alexis haven't changed their minds.

    What would your reaction be if the school suddenly announced, you know what, we're going to go back to five days?

  • Michael Lazano:

    I would be happy. I love my teacher, and I love my friends, and I want to stay with them as long as I can.

  • Alexis Parela:

    I really — I don't really like this. I would be like, uh, I don't think I want to this no more.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Bayard County, New Mexico.

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