NORTH BRANCH, Minn. - Pressed for dollars, a growing number of public schools are doing what many educators once considered unimaginable: eliminating an entire school day each week.
At least 292 school districts nationwide have a four-day week, according to a Washington Post survey, more than double the 120 estimated two years ago.
That's still a small fraction of the nation's 15,000 school districts, but it's one signal that this is shaping up as a "cliff year" in American education as the evaporation of federal stimulus funds and other fiscal troubles force many schools to make dramatic cuts.
In this community just north of the Twin Cities, they have already cut the drama club. And cheerleading, ski club and marching band. So many teachers have been laid off that some classrooms have 40 students, and one high school guidance counselor juggles 550 students. When school officials couldn't figure out what else to squeeze, they lopped off a day.
For the Hyduke family, that means when Ruby, 8, and Norah 6, hustle out the front door on Mondays, their parents go to work and the girls head to day care.
Ruby and Norah play board games like "Sorry!" and "Trouble." Sometimes, they do crafts. Mostly, they look forward to Tuesday, when the school week begins. "I like school better," said Ruby in a soft voice, because "you get to learn more there."
Four-day school weeks have been around since the 1930s and experienced revived interest during the oil crisis of the 1970s. But they had been used largely by a handful of rural districts in Western states, including New Mexico, where buses can burn plenty of gas traveling mountainous roads.
Growing economic pressures have forced districts small and large across the country to consider the practice.
"Five years ago, I rarely got a call about this. Now I'm getting a call a day," said Michael Griffith, senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, which advises states on policy and practices. "And for the first time, the larger, more urban districts are talking about it."
Places like Pasco County, Fla., 30 miles north of Tampa, which is considering whether to shift its 67,000 students to a four-day week to reduce a $26 million shortfall projected for next year.
And Marion County, Fla., about 75 miles northwest of Tampa, which plans to put its 41,000 students on a four-day school week next year.
"There's nothing left to cut," said Kevin Christian, a spokesman for the system, where the budget has shrunk from $600 million to $478 million over the past three years.
Because most states require a minimum of instructional hours, districts that drop a day lengthen the remaining four days so students don't lose "seat time." Research measuring the impact of a four-day school week on student achievement is scant. Educators in North Branch and elsewhere say there is no evidence that it has hurt learning.
But the schedule can be hard on families and students.
Meanwhile, districts save money on electricity, food and transportation as well as the hourly wages for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other nonsalaried employees. But Griffith said the savings are usually modest, totaling around just 2.5 percent of a typical school budget.
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