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Editorial: 4-day school week

Superintendent Michael Buoniconti’s latest idea of a four-day school week for Mohawk Trail Regional School District undoubtedly caught some off-guard ... but it shouldn’t have.

Since arriving on the scene in 2005, Buoniconti has been trying to find an answer to the district’s financial problems. That motivation accounts for initiatives ranging from attempts to consolidate the district’s elementary schools to Mohawk’s aggressive approach to School Choice — and most recently the idea of attracting students from China.

Now it’s reducing the school week from five days to four.

Buoinconti’s throwing a lot of cost-cutting spaghetti at the wall — but which ideas will stick?

A cursory examination of the four-day school week shows that the idea isn’t particularly new. Such a schedule has actually been around for a number of decades and trying to save money has been and remains the motivation for making such a switch.

According to the Education Commission of the States, a four-day a week school schedule is used by 120 of the country’s approximately 15,000 school districts, in 17 states, though that number seems to be growing. For the most part, these are rural districts west of the Mississippi River.

And those districts do save money. But it is not a savings of, say 20 percent from the overall budget. The big savings are found in transportation, operations and maintenance, including utility costs, food service and, to some degree, money needed for substitute teaching.

Calculating overall actual savings, though, is a trickier proposition. According to a study published by the commission in 2011, “ECS has determined that the average district could produce a maximum savings of 5.43 percent of its total budget by moving to a four-day week. In addition, it was found that districts that moved to a four-day week have experienced actual savings of only between 0.4 percent and 2.5 percent.”

Now savings are savings, particularly for a district that is facing increasing financial pressures. But what about educational benefits?

Here, what is presented relies more on anecdotal information rather than hard evidence. As a 2009 study from the university of Southern Maine noted, “Despite over 35 years of implementation, few studies have documented the impact of the four-day school week. ... The most common means of identifying its success or failure are reports or evaluations conducted by districts themselves. As noted by many observers, the literature that exists on the four-day school week is mainly positive, but not often peer-reviewed or scientifically based, and few summaries of this literature provide any critical analysis of the results.”

We’re glad so far that the selling points have not been directed at academic achievement. This is a budget move.

But any research that Buoniconti plans to do should to include a number of a factors that may not be readily identifiable, such as the cost to families for child care, impact on at-risk students and even student fatigue in lengthening the school day 90 more minutes. Without this kind of information, the Mohawk community will be short-changed when it comes to making a decision that will have ramifications both inside and out of the classroom.

This all bears watching as the district studies the idea.

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