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KAI RYSSDAL: By most measures this was probably a pretty normal back-to-school day for kids around the country. The ones who are lucky enough to live in districts that don’t start until after Labor Day, anyway. But if you look real close, there’s something different going on this year.
A survey out from the American Association of School Administrators show rising fuel costs are affecting virtually every district in the country. So some are cutting back to working 80 percent of the time, keeping class in session longer — but only four days a week.
Marketplace’s Jeremy Hobson has the first of two stories on going back to school.
JEREMY HOBSON: One of the states that’s most on-board with the four day school week is Colorado. Mostly because it’s so rural, which means long bus routes.
WENDY DUNAWAY: As of 2007, we had 67 out of 178 districts that are on a four-day week.
That’s Wendy Dunaway with the Colorado Department of Education. She says the districts that have switched are almost all rural and are generally happy with the change.
On a rainy afternoon at a hotel in Colorado Springs, about 25 people gather in a medium-sized conference room. They are parents, teachers and administrators from the Calhan School District, which has been on a four-day schedule since the last energy crisis nearly three decades ago.
Susan Vanasse is the district’s business manager.
Susan VANASSE: Our school district covers about 200 square miles. So almost all of our kids are bused in.
HOBSON: So the buses are literally going 100 miles a day?
VANASSE: Easily. Easily. Most of our routes are between 70 and 80. We do have one that’s 119 miles.
HOBSON: And these things don’t get good gas mileage I assume?
VANASSE: No. No. We’re talking 7, 8 miles a gallon.
Vanasse says the school saves tens of thousands of dollars a year in bus fuel alone. And schools on four-day weeks also save on heating and electricity.
Jerry Monks is Calhan’s high school principal. He used to teach at a five-day school, and he says the four-day week also boosts student attendance.
JERRY MONKS: It seems like kids more often make their appointments on Mondays and try to do their business on Mondays so that they’re there Tuesday through Friday.
HOBSON: What do you think are the minuses of having a four-day week?
MONKS: We could provide more in terms of depth of curriculum over the course of five days, and perhaps a little bit of just the discipline of rigor of going five days to work, five days to school.
That may be but four-day proponents point out studies that show no negative impact in terms of student test scores. There’s not a positive one either. There is the problem of tired kids, who are in school for eight hours instead of six or seven.
On the street in Calhan, people tell me they’ve gotten used to the shortened week. Residents say finding daycare isn’t a problem. Young kids work on farms, or high school students on the same schedule babysit them.
Ed Doven runs the local auto repair shop. He says his daughter spends Mondays with the grandparents.
ED DOVEN: They teach her to sew and different things like that, so it’s good for both of them.
And as for Brea Marshbanks, a Calhan school graduate starting her second year of college….
BREA MARSHBANKS: I love the four-day school week. I miss it. In college we have five-day and I hate it.
HOBSON: Did you feel like you were learning as much as your friends maybe who were in five-day schools?
MARSHBANKS: Yeah, I have a 3.9 at college so…
Now, even Calhan school administrators caution a four-day week is not for everyone. And, in fact, lots of schools couldn’t switch if they wanted to because of state laws that mandate school time in days, not hours. But Daniel Domenech at the American Association of School Administrators, says even if gas prices dip and the four-day trend fades, the underlying problem is here to stay.
Dan Domenech: I wish I could say that it’s very unusual for school districts to have problems with budgets. But it isn’t. It’s always been a struggle and always will be.
In Calhan, Colorado, I’m Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.
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