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Montana schools address teacher shortage by adopting four-day weeks

Move hoped to better recruit and retain educators

Skylar Rispens

Montana Free Press

This story, the first of two parts, was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Andrew Durand left his home state of New York and moved more than 2,000 miles for a job as a music teacher in Stanford, Montana, after applying for more than 150 jobs throughout the northeastern United States.

He kept getting beat out for positions by college professors driven out of their colleges due to budget cuts, he said, so he expanded his search and on a whim applied for a job in Montana. Within a few hours after submitting his first application he received two emails and a phone call.

Before applying to districts in Montana, Durand had never heard of four-day school weeks, but it wound up being a deciding factor in where he wanted to work.

“I’m a music teacher. I’m making like 30-something-thousand-dollars a year no matter where I go,” Durand said. “You tell me I can do that working four days a week instead of five days a week and I can have an extra day to relax, unwind, or prep, or do any of the thousand things I need to do that I never get done? I’m going to take it.

“I get that there’s a lot of teacher openings in Montana and they’re having trouble filling them. The job doesn’t pay very well. If there’s no wiggle room on the pay, you have to find the incentive somewhere else.”

An annual report released this year from the National Education Association found that Montana ranks last in the country when it comes to average starting teaching salaries, and average teacher salaries are also near the bottom when compared nationally. Music teachers are difficult to come by in Montana, especially in smaller districts that have limited budgets for salaries. But the four-day schedule helped Stanford Public Schools close that gap.

The district first jumped to a four-day school week in the fall of 2020 to help recruit teachers to the town of about 400 people and was among the first in Judith Basin County to do so. Craig Crawford, the district’s superintendent, said since the schedule change he’s maintained high retention rates (between 95% to 100% each year), hasn’t often had to utilize emergency authorizations to fill positions and has noticed that teachers aren’t “March tired” anymore.

School districts in Montana have been able to operate outside of a traditional five-day school week since 2005 when accreditation requirements changed from 180 instructional days to 1,080 hours. Only 30 schools operated on the alternative schedule in 2008, the first year the Montana Office of Public Instruction began tracking that information.

By the end of last school year, there were 222 schools — more than one-quarter of schools in Montana — operating four days a week, an increase of 47 schools from the previous year.

Havre this year joined a number of schools in its area already operating on a four-day week.

While most schools operating on a four-day school week are among the state’s smallest and most rural, there are more Class A and B school districts adopting the schedule.

Four-day school weeks began in the 1930s in rural states. By the 1970s the alternative schedule rose in popularity to cut costs during gas shortages. Since the early 2000s, there has been a 734% increase in the number of schools operating on some variation of a four-day school week, according to Paul Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University who has researched four-day school weeks since 2016.

Thompson told attendees at a four-day school week policy conference hosted at OSU this fall that there are about 2,100 schools in 900 school districts across 26 states that have adopted some form of a four-day school week. Similarly to Montana, these districts tend to be small and rural with an average enrollment of about 450 students, but that mold is beginning to shift to include larger districts in suburban areas.

While researchers at the Oregon conference found that schools across the country are largely moving to four-day schedules as a means for cost savings, that’s not the case in Montana where administrators noted that staff recruitment and retention topped their motivations.

STAFF RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION

Laurel Public Schools is reviewing the possibility of moving to a four-day school week to better recruit and retain teachers. The Class A school district is not immune to the challenges presented by the decades-long teacher and staff shortages that affect districts across the state, said Superintendent Matt Torix. Two decades ago, some positions in Laurel, a town of about 7,200 people, could attract upwards of 40 applicants. Now, Torix is lucky if he receives four applications.

Not only is Torix’s district located just 14 miles southwest of Billings, the state’s largest city, it’s also in close proximity to several other districts within a reasonable commute — some of which are also on a four-day school week.

At this point, the district is researching and learning from the experiences of other communities that have made the jump to the alternative school schedule. Torix and the district’s calendar committee members are comfortable moving forward with a two-year process to better involve the community, he said.

“I hate to be on the cutting edge of everything,” Torix said. “Sometimes it’s good to sit back and just take it slow.”

“I’m a little bit mixed on it,” he continued. “My world won’t change a whole lot, but it’s not really about me. It’s about what’s best for kids. So I keep asking that question over and over again: How does this benefit our students? That has yet to be decided.”

Chris Fielder serves as superintendent of District 27J in the Denver metropolitan area, which is one of the largest school districts in the country to operate on a four-day week, boasting an enrollment just shy of 23,000 students.

Prior to moving to the schedule in 2018, Fielder’s district was among the lowest-funded in the state and had the lowest teaching salaries in the area. Ultimately, the district moved to the schedule to save money and better recruit and retain teachers.

“I will say that the four-day school week is the only thing that has allowed us to remain competitive and attract teachers away from places like Boulder Valley School District, Cherry Creek School District,” Fielder said at the OSU conference. “Folks could drive 20 miles and make $20,000 more than they were making here.”

In south-central Montana, Roberts Public School first transitioned to a four-day school week in 2015 — just after Superintendent Alex Ator’s first year with the district. Attracting quality teachers to Roberts, located just 30 miles southwest of Laurel, also proved challenging.

“I feel like in Roberts, we were a mom-and-pop shop on the same block as Target and a Super Walmart,” Ator said. “We didn’t pay as well as Target or Super Walmart; we didn’t have the same selection of offerings. We’re boutique, we do a lot of things really well, but we were having a hard time getting ‘customers’ coming in the door, and that included staff.”

It’s unclear exactly what role moving to a four-day school week has had on teacher recruitment and retention, but Ator said that it’s helped put the district in a better position. Roberts isn’t necessarily an oasis when it comes to teacher applicants, but the four-day schedule may have helped maintain a trickle while surrounding districts experienced a drought.

“When I first got to Roberts, I received a handful [of applicants] for a typical position, and my colleagues received a few dozen,” Ator said. “Now, I still receive a couple and some of my colleagues don’t receive any.”

Teachers at Ator’s district generally prefer a four-day school week in order to have Fridays to catch up on grading, go on field trips with students, work one-on-one with students who need extra support, prepare lessons for the coming week and work on professional development with their colleagues.

That’s true for Kennedee Blankenship, who teaches grades 7-12 in history and social studies at Roberts. Blankenship is in her second year of teaching and previously worked at a high school in Billings. She left that position in search of smaller class sizes and a four-day school week, she said.

“I live in Billings, so I wanted something either in Billings or near Billings that had positions that were open,” Blankenship said. “But the four-day school week was a huge draw to be willing to drive almost an hour both ways every day.”

Ultimately, Blankenship said that the four-day week allowed her to see herself working as a teacher much longer than she previously considered.

“It makes it seem like it’s going to be able to be sustained as my career and not something I’m going to do for a maximum of five years and then stop,” Blankenship said. “I do think part of that is having that Friday off.”

In northeastern Montana, Plentywood Schools is in the middle of its first year on a four-day school week. Like many other districts in the state, Superintendent Rob Pedersen’s district made the transition to recruit and retain staff.

“Most of the schools in our area are on a four-day week, and we had lost a lot of teachers who were currently employed by us,” Pedersen said. “And teacher candidates, we lost them to those other schools.”

In order to remain competitive, Plentywood raised the base salaries for teachers by nearly 16%, Pedersen said. Staff, whose working hours were reduced by the condensed schedule, such as bus drivers and kitchen staff, also received pay increases “just to make sure that they didn’t lose any money because of the switch,” he added.

Since making the change to a shorter work week, Pedersen said he’s had better luck with hiring. Of the 11 openings his district had for the year, he was able to fill nine.

“I would say that’s pretty good success because we did get some teachers who are fresh out of college that definitely could have made more money in other states or maybe even in certain areas of Montana. I think, not only the increase in salaries, but also the four-day week was something that enticed them to come here.”

Admittedly, Pedersen was not a fan of moving to the four-day week due to his concerns when it comes to student academic outcomes, he said.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not totally sold that it’s great for education,” Pedersen said. “But again, if we don’t have the teachers in the classroom to teach, we just felt that was obviously way more detrimental.”

STUDENT ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

When Molly Mitchell, an 11th-grade student at Roberts, first transferred from Red Lodge the biggest difference she noticed at first was the longer school days, but she quickly acclimated to the extra 45 minutes in class each day, she said.

As a student in a Class C school of about 109 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, Mitchell is active in extracurricular activities like National Honor Society, FFA and student council. Outside of school, she is a competitive shooter and dancer.

Having an extra weekend day has given her more time to keep up with schoolwork while also fitting in all of her other activities. At the height of her shooting season, Michell practices six days a week. While most qualifying matches take place in Montana, she often has to travel across state lines for higher-level competitions.

“I love it, but it gets busy,” Mitchell said. “So having that extra day off to relax and sleep in a little bit is very beneficial.”

A majority of students in small schools in Montana are active in extracurricular activities like Mitchell, and when events and sports are scheduled during the school week those students miss out on instructional time. Teachers and staff often serve as coaches, advisors or chaperones for those activities, too. While improving student absenteeism isn’t generally the leading factor for schools in Montana to consider moving to a four-day school week, it is an added bonus, administrators said.

“Trying to get substitute teachers to work with just 20% to 30% of a class wasn’t cost-effective and wasn’t educationally effective,” Crawford said.

However, many teachers interviewed for this article said that even though some events and games are scheduled for Fridays or the weekend, there are still some that take place during the week.

For teachers, the largest challenge they’ve experienced is figuring out how to condense their instructional days from five to four days, especially since most curriculum is structured specifically for five days of instruction.

“Get familiar with your curriculum and see where you can put things together, what you can condense easily,” said Kathy Ward, a second-grade teacher in Stanford. “I don’t think that there’s one way that you’re going to do a four-day week. You just need to figure out what you can do to make it work for your world.”

Thompson at Oregon State found that average school days for districts operating four days a week are about an hour longer than those on traditional school schedules. Though the days are longer, four-day school districts lose about three-and-a-half hours of instruction each week and nearly 85 fewer instructional hours each year.

Thompson’s research found that, nationally, students at four-day schools generally perform lower in both math and English/language arts than do students at schools with traditional schedules.

Tim Tharp,

a county superintendent for Richland County in eastern Montana, conducted his own causal, comparative study on student academic achievement of Montana students in relation to four-day school weeks for his doctoral dissertation in 2014. In his research, Tharp found initial improvement or no meaningful change in the first few years that a school is on a four-day week, but after that, things took a turn for the worse.

“That’s not to say that students can’t be successful in a four-day week,” Tharp said. “What it tells me is that we need to do a better job of making that transition and helping people figure out how to best teach students on that schedule.”

According to data provided by the Montana Office of Public Instruction, between 2017 and 2022, students on four-day school weeks had lower math and reading proficiency rates compared to their peers in school five days a week, though that gap has begun to narrow since 2020. However, schools on four-day school weeks have higher graduation rates. The OPI acknowledged that school size, demographics and economics may be factors for the differences in the data.

Though there is little research on the academic effects of four-day school weeks prior to 2020, what is available has found both positive and negative impacts on student academic achievement. Additionally, teachers and administrators in Montana interviewed for this article said they did not notice any negative effects on their students’ academic outcomes.

Academic achievement is typically a paramount concern for communities when their districts consider moving to a four-day school week. As a compromise, some districts will adopt some sort of system to incorporate a study hall or targeted academic intervention on Fridays.

Havre Public Schools is currently in its first year on a four-day school week and is the largest district in the state to forego the longer week. One feature the district adopted is “Support Fridays,” a program that occurs about twice a month from 8 a.m. to noon to provide targeted intervention available to all students. On those days, school buses are available for transportation and the district provides breakfast and lunch for students.

Initial feedback indicates that Support Fridays are successful in Havre, however, administrators and staff agree that the district needs to reevaluate the schedule for next school year to provide students with better support around semester tests, quarter breaks or midterm tests

“I’ll be 100% honest, I was a little skeptical about the Support Fridays concept, but our early results show … it has gone very, very well and it’s been well-received,” said Brad Moore, assistant superintendent in Havre. “So I see great potential in morphing that program to better meet the needs of our kids.”

Principals in the district reported to the school board in November that student participation in Support Fridays was low at the start of the school year. As the first quarter progressed, more students began attending the targeted intervention days, with the elementary schools seeing nearly half of their students show up. At the middle school and high schools, those numbers are slightly lower with roughly a third of students in attendance.

Havre Middle School Principal Curt Leeds reported to the board that, comparing student grade-point averages from the first quarter of this year to last year, he observed a 3% increase in the number of students with a 3.0 GPA or higher. When it came to kids with a 2.0 or greater GPA, there was a 6% increase.

“Ultimately, all those kids that are in the mid-range, who are probably the ones coming on Support Fridays, we’re seeing a huge increase for those,” Leeds said. “So the big thing is that if we can start getting some of our kids that are struggling a little bit to show up a bit more, I think the Support Fridays will be having a very positive effect.”

Superintendents and teachers generally agree that districts that choose to adopt a four-day school week require buy-in from supportive administrators, teaching and support staff, as well as the surrounding community, to be successful.

“One-size-fits-all solutions don’t work for everybody,” said Richland County’s Tharp. “There might be some things that they could use from each other and some general ideas, but every community is unique and every community has to figure out their own solution. Just because something works in one district doesn’t mean it’s going to work in the next district down the road.”

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https://montanafreepress.org/2023/12/18/montana-schools-address-teacher-shortage-by-adopting-four-day-weeks-to-better-recruit-and-retain-educators .

 

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